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Putin, Kuchma Meet in Ukraine - 2004-01-23

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Ukraine for two days of talks with President Leonid Kuchma that are expected to cover a wide range of bilateral issues from energy to efforts aimed at forging a common market.

Presidents Putin and Kuchma will kick off their visit by attending festivities marking the end of what was called the year of Russia in Ukraine. It is a year that, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement released Friday, saw a 31 percent increase in bilateral trade between Russia and neighboring Ukraine.

But bigger profits could lie ahead, if the two nations can agree on a stalled deal to upgrade Ukraine's ailing, Soviet-era natural gas pipelines.

Presidents Putin and Kuchma will also likely discuss completion of a common market, to include Belarus and Kazakhstan, which aims to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labor, as well as common tariffs and customs.

President Putin's deputy chief of staff, Sergei Prikhodko, says the presidents are also expected to sign deals regulating imports of Ukrainian steel and Russian nuclear fuel supplies during their talks.

In an interview with Russia's Itar-Tass news agency, Mr. Prikhodko also said that Russia wishes to see Ukraine as a powerful, stable and prosperous state and, as such, would hope to see Ukraine settle its domestic political squabbles as quickly as possible.

Ukraine has come under criticism in the West for attempting to change the constitution in this, an election year, in a way that could help President Kuchma's camp hold on to power.

President Kuchma denies that anything that could pose a threat to democracy is happening in Ukraine.