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Ukrainian President Pursues Controversial Russia Policies

With less than three months in office, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has moved quickly to improve ties with Russia that deteriorated under his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko. Mr. Yanukovych's diplomacy has sparked fears among critics that he may be not only be harming the national interests of Ukraine, but also leading the country toward a break-up.

President Viktor Yanukovych hosted his Russian counterpart this week in Kyiv, where both leaders were joined by some of the wealthiest businesspeople from both countries at a forum Tuesday.

Ship and airplane builders voiced support for tighter cooperation between Russia and Ukraine. Russian President Dimitri Medvedev suggested both countries coordinate their tax, customs, banking and insurance laws and create a single economic space.

At Kyiv State University, the Kremlin leader invited Ukraine to join Russia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This followed an earlier suggestion by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that both countries combine their state gas companies.

It is not clear that Mr. Yanukovych supports every Russian proposal, but he clearly raised serious opposition with a controversial agreement last month to extend through 2042 the lease Russia's Black Sea Fleet has in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. In exchange, Russia offered Ukraine a 30 percent discount on the price of gas imports for 10 years.

President Yanukovych told the business forum his initiatives with Mr. Medvedev promote security in the Black Sea and the volatile Transdniester region of Moldova.

Mr. Yanukovych said both leaders base their decisions on the principle of collective and coordinated actions of all interested parties.

But many critics oppose the Black Sea Fleet agreement as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Parliament adopted Mr. Yanukovych's Black Sea Fleet agreement without debate, which sparked an egg-throwing brawl among lawmakers last month.

At Kyiv State University, President Medvedev responded to a student's skepticism about the fleet's presence in Ukraine.

Mr. Medvedev says, 'Let us be direct,' and asks rhetorically if Russia will use its Black Sea Fleet to attack neighboring countries. The answer, he says, is "No", adding that Russia is a peaceful country.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is not so sure. She told the Times of London newspaper the Black Sea Fleet agreement poses a substantial threat to stability in Crimea, and warns the flurry of Yanukovych deals with Moscow could lead to Ukraine's break up.

Moscow Carnegie Center political analyst Nikolai Petrov says the new Ukrainian president inherited a troubled economy at a time when the European Union has its own share of problems. Petrov says Mr. Yanukovych could only turn to Russia, noting that Ukrainian businesspeople support closer ties with Russian counterparts, at least for now.

The analyst says questions will eventually emerge about competition, Russian companies on the Ukrainian market, and legislation to improve cooperation with Russian firms. Petrov says at that point, various objective differences and challenges [between Ukraine and Russia] will become clear.

A survey conducted by the Razumkov Center in Kyiv indicates most Ukrainians favor integration with the European Union. The Center's international program director, Mykhailo Pashkov, told VOA that E.U. membership remains the country's primary strategic goal.

Pashkov says Ukraine must diversify its foreign political activity and pay close attention to places where it has a national interest, including Brazil, India, China, Pacific Rim countries and the United States.

Viktor Yanukovych is only three months into a five-year term. Analysts Petrov and Pashkov agree the new Ukrainian leader will likely slow down the current pace of relations with Russia and turn his attention elsewhere.

While Russian leaders have showered Ukraine with proposals, Kyiv maintains some distance from Moscow. Mr. Yanukovych has said Ukraine will remain neutral, which means it will probably join neither NATO nor the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Ukrainian officials have also been cool to Mr. Putin's suggestion about consolidating the Russian and Ukrainian gas companies. Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuri Boyko expressed concern at the business forum about the future of his country's gas pipeline system if Russia circumvents Ukraine with the Nord and South Stream projects for gas delivery to western Europe.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian lawmakers voted in favor of the so-called Sea Breeze multi-national military exercise led by the U.S. Navy in the Black Sea. Sea Breeze was canceled last year because of opposition in Ukraine's Parliament, which is now controlled by Mr. Yanukovych's Regions Party. Russia has protested foreign navy vessels sailing in the Black Sea.