Ukraine president in Moscow for talks with Russian leadership
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych arrives for the first visit to Russia by a Ukrainian head of state in two years, a week after pledging to pursue "non-alignment" regarding Russia's relations with the West in his inauguration speech.
AFP - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who came to power on pledges of resetting ties with Russia, was expected in Moscow Friday amid efforts to defuse years of tensions between the two neighbors.
Arriving for the first Russian visit by a Ukrainian head of state in two years, Yanukovych, who took office last week, was scheduled to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, considered to be the country's paramount leader.
"The intensification of political dialogue is among the priority tasks," the Kremlin said in a statement ahead of the visit.
"The meeting of the heads of state is designed to give a serious impetus to the development of the entire set of Russian-Ukrainian relations, the resumption of their truly good neighborly and mutually beneficial nature."
Moscow and Kiev had frosty ties over the past five years as Yanukovych's predecessor Viktor Yushchenko, ousted in the January polls, sought to bring Ukraine into the NATO military alliance.
Last year Medvedev accused Yushchenko of being "anti-Russian" and swore he would not do business with him.
Yanukovych in contrast has long been seen as a pro-Moscow politician and his power base lies in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east.
Yanukovych's comments in Moscow will be closely watched for signs of where he plans to take Ukraine, a former Soviet republic of 46 million people strategically located between Russia and the European Union.
Yanukovych said in his inauguration speech last week that Ukraine would be "a European, non-aligned state," indicating he would not seek membership in NATO while also staying out of any Russian-led alliances.
He softened his pro-Moscow image, however, by visiting the EU's headquarters in Brussels on Monday for his first foreign trip, where he declared that EU integration would continue to be a priority for Ukraine.
Some Russian media reports said the Kremlin was unhappy about Yanukovych's decision to visit Brussels before Moscow.
Natural gas may be a source of friction at Friday's talks, as Yanukovych has sought revisions to the Russian-Ukrainian gas contract and a better gas price for Ukraine, which was hit hard by the global economic crisis.
A Russian daily Kommersant said Friday, citing a source in the Ukrainian administration, that Yanukovych would resort to some hard-nosed bargaining tactics and would ask Moscow to slash gas prices by a third from the current 305 dollars per thousand cubic meter.
In return, he would offer Moscow a 33 percent stake in Ukraine's vast pipeline network, the newspaper said, adding that if Moscow was not prepared to offer concessions, Yanukovych would resume supplies of Ukraine's gas to Poland, Romania and Hungary.
Gas has long been a stumbling block between Moscow and Kiev, most notably during the January 2009 gas crisis which caused a cut-off of Russian gas supplies to more than a dozen European countries.
Russia also hopes that Friday's summit will give a "constructive impulse" to talks on the future of its Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Ukraine's port of Sevastopol, a Kremlin source said.
The fleet is based in Sevastopol under a lease which expires in 2017 and which the Kremlin is keen to extend. Yushchenko had insisted the fleet should leave in 2017, but Yanukovych has promised to seek a compromise.
The Ukrainian daily newspaper Segodnya, which is seen as being close to the Yanukovych camp, has reported that Yanukovych would also seek a loan of between two and five billion dollars from Russia.