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New Ukrainian President Meets EU Leaders in Brussels

EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy (L) walks with newly elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (R) as they arrive for a working session at the EU headquarters in Brussels, 01 Mar 2010

Viktor Yanukovych seeking to position his country as a bridge between Europe and Russia

Ukraine's new president, Viktor Yanukovich, says he is committed to establishing closer ties with the European Union.

Yanukovich, who is considered far more pro-Russian than his predecessor, chose to make his first foreign trip to Brussels, rather than to Moscow. There are plenty of issues on the table, including closer ties with the 27-member European Union.

At a press conference following talks with EU officials, Mr. Yanukovich sought to allay European fears about Russian natural gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine that have sometimes been disrupted.

He said Ukraine would remain a reliable transit country for all energy resources, including gas.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called for Ukraine to resume cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, a key condition for Kyiv to get European Union assistance. He also brought up the possibility of a so-called EU association agreement.

"Currently under negotiation, it will lead to a deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement offering Ukraine access to a market of 500 million consumers and providing a perspective of, in a very short period, doubling Ukrainian exports to the European Union," Barroso said.

A European analyst for the Chatham House policy institute in London, Richard Whitman, says Mr. Yanukovich's visit to Brussels signals an openness toward the West that some had not expected.

"The expectation has been that he was more Moscow interested and clearly by coming to visit Brussels, he has both confounded expectations and pulled the rug from under the feet of his opponents," Whitman said.

But eastern European analyst Amanda Paul, of the Brussels-based European Policy Center, says it is too early to read much into Mr. Yanukovich's visit to Brussels.

"I think he still wants to have a constructive relationship with the European Union. How far that actually goes still remains to be seen," Paul said.Analysts say Europe wants a Ukraine that is economically and politically stable. If Mr. Yanukovich proves to be a reliable negotiating partner, that will be welcome in Brussels.