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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 December 2006, 13:58 GMT
Putin seeks to boost Ukraine ties
By Helen Fawkes
BBC News, Kiev

Ukraine's Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (left) and President Viktor Yushchenko
President Yushchenko (right) and PM Yanukovych remain rivals
Russian President Vladimir Putin is about to make his first trip to Ukraine since the appointment of the pro-Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych.

It was almost two years ago that Mr Putin was last in Kiev and back then things were very different.

The Orange Revolution had swept the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to power, defeating Mr Yanukovych, the candidate publicly supported by the Kremlin in the bitterly fought presidential election.

On Friday the Russian leader can expect a warm welcome from the prime minister.

Energy is expected to be high up the agenda, with a number of agreements due to be signed.

Kremlin wish-list

The timing of this trip is symbolic. It was almost a year ago that a dispute over the price Ukraine paid for gas led to supplies being briefly cut by Moscow.

This sent a chill across Europe, which receives much of its Russian gas via Ukraine's pipelines.

Mr Yanukovych helped to negotiate a deal with Moscow for 2007, which means there should be no repeat of the crisis on New Year's Day.

Ukraine will continue to pay well below the European average for its Russian gas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
President Putin wants to restore close ties with Ukraine
There has been intense speculation about whether political concessions were made to get this agreement.

"President Putin is coming to Kiev to do business with Yanukovych's government. Ukraine's gas transportation network is at the top of the Kremlin's wish-list," says Kiev-based political analyst Ivan Lozowy.

"Moscow wants to gain control over this as part of its wider aspiration to expand its area of influence in the former Soviet Union," he says.

Mr Putin is due to hold talks with President Yushchenko.

One of the main aims is to improve relations which were damaged during the 2004 Orange Revolution.

As Ukraine's leader, Mr Yushchenko has set his country on a pro-Western path towards Nato and the EU.

Compared to Mr Putin's last visit to Kiev in 2005, the mood now is very different.

Power struggle

Many supporters of the Orange Revolution have become increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of reform and the popularity of the president has plummeted.

At parliamentary elections earlier this year Mr Yanukovych, who pledged a number of Moscow-friendly policies, won the largest share of the vote.

Ukrainian gas pipes - file photo
Moscow briefly cut gas supplies to Ukraine in January in a price row
But that does not mean the Russian president will have everything his own way.

Mr Yanukovych agreed to continue President Yushchenko's foreign policy agenda in order to be appointed prime minister, although his commitment to that agreement is in some doubt.

"Yanukovych has what we would call a multi-vectored approach," says Grigory Nemryia, an opposition MP.

"He wants to keep both Russia and the West on his side. It's like he's milking two cows at once."

Mr Yanukovych wants to slow down work towards membership of Nato.

He is also favourable towards the Single Economic Space, a trade bloc of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. But membership of this is likely to harm his country's chances of joining the EU.

On the other hand, he is not entirely Moscow's man.

Mr Yanukovych has repeatedly said he is committed to joining the EU and thanks to his MPs, Ukraine is on the verge of becoming a member of the World Trade Organization.

"Now he's prime minister, Russia isn't sure whether he's the person they want," says Ivan Lozowy.

"The Kremlin is not happy because Yanukovych refuses to just roll over and play dead."

Many here believe that Ukraine is not about to turn back towards Russia, but that the speed of its integration with the West will no longer be as fast as Mr Yushchenko has promised.

Pressure on Yushchenko

Mr Putin's trip to Kiev comes at a difficult time domestically.

There is an escalating power struggle between Ukraine's president and prime minister.

President Yushchenko is looking increasingly marginalised. He is losing authority to Mr Yanukovych.

MPs recently sacked the foreign minister, a close ally of the president - a move which Mr Yushchenko says is unlawful.

It is feared the dispute could ultimately lead to early parliamentary elections.

"Moscow needs to know what the relations are between Yanukovych and Yushchenko," says Leonid Kozhara, a Ukrainian MP and foreign policy adviser to the prime minister.

"Russia wants to establish exactly who is in charge of Ukraine."


SEE ALSO
EU push to influence neighbours
29 Nov 06 |  Europe
Russia and Ukraine near gas deal
24 Oct 06 |  Business
Country profile: Russia
03 Dec 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Ukraine
18 Dec 06 |  Country profiles

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