Thursday, January 27, 2005

Viktor Yushchenko made the maiden voyage of his Ukrainian presidency to Moscow this week, visiting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was, in effect, a campaign rival. The move was an important piece of both foreign and domestic strategy, and Mr. Yushchenko should be commended for his level-headed leadership.

That level-headedness will be needed to balance Mr. Yushchenko’s dynamic and controversial prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Mrs. Tymoshenko was a critical force behind the Orange Revolution that brought Mr. Yushchenko to power and has proven talent in mobilizing and inspiring the president’s base. According to Mrs. Tymoshenko, Mr. Yushchenko had promised her the prime minister position in a letter, back in the days when the president’s supporters were camped out in Kiev in freezing temperatures and his presidency was more uncertain. The appointment should be regarded more in this context, rather than in her anti-Russian bent.

The future of the Yushchenko presidency and Ukraine itself depends on a close relationship with Russia. Ukraine receives energy resources at a discount from Russia and millions of Ukrainians work in Russia, sending remittances back home. While Mr. Yushchenko naturally sees his country’s future prosperity tied to the West, the link with Russia remains important — economically and culturally. For the eastern, Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, a rupture with Russia could divide the country. That population was represented in the roughly 40 percent of Ukrainians who voted for former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich in the last round of voting.

“I want to underscore that this is my first visit” abroad since being sworn into office on Sunday, Mr. Yushchenko said, as he was greeted by Mr. Putin ahead of their talks. “This is a sign of great respect for our relations. Russia is an eternal strategic partner.”

Mr. Putin, who openly supported Mr. Yushchenko’s rival in the race for the presidency, also struck a conciliatory tone. “I would like to note the rather frank character of the conversation, the positive mood of our Ukrainian colleagues,” he said. “I do not see a single question that would elicit any misunderstanding or would create conditions for any kind of difficulties on the path of our cooperation.” Mr. Putin also seemed willing to overlook any objections to Ukraine’s new prime minister, who faces bribery allegations in Russia.

It is unclear just when Ukraine would join an increasingly enlargement-fatigued European Union. For Mr. Yushchenko, it makes sense to pursue warm relations with the United States, Europe and Russia. Any party that tries to force Ukraine to narrowly choose its alliances could ultimately lose influence.

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