MOSCOW, Jan. 24 -- One day after being inaugurated as president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko said Monday that he believed he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had overcome the strains caused by the Kremlin's open backing of his electoral opponent. But Yushchenko, who came here on his first full day in office to meet with Putin, also signaled that he would follow through on pledges of radical changes designed to bring Ukraine closer to the West, a stance that has discomfited some in Russia's establishment.
"What occurred before the elections were mere episodes, and this issue is no longer on the agenda," Yushchenko said at a news conference after his session with Putin. "We assume and will continue to assume that Russia is our eternal strategic ally."
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, left, greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin one day after taking office in Kiev. Putin had supported Yushchenko's rival.
(Presidential Press Service Via Reuters)
The new Ukrainian leader balanced his conciliatory words with a warning that his policies, including relations with Russia, would be determined by his country's national interest rather than what he called the "byzantine" politics of the past. Though Ukraine became independent in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has often regarded Ukraine as a little brother.
Yushchenko, 50, emphasized his independent stance earlier Monday by appointing Yulia Tymoshenko as acting prime minister. Tymoshenko is a blunt, charismatic and often divisive figure who served as energy minister when Yushchenko was prime minister from 1999 to 2001.
Yushchenko also declined to endorse Putin's aim of establishing a Single Economic Space combining Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Yushchenko's allies regard this proposed entity as a Kremlin attempt to reassert Russia's sway over former Soviet countries.
"We are led by two principles: The first is that any [economic treaty] should answer Ukraine's national interest," he said. "The second principle is that any document should not block Ukraine's road to other markets." Yushchenko has said that Ukraine's entry into the European Union is his government's principal goal.
At the Kremlin, Yushchenko was greeted warmly by Putin, who smiled and attempted to explain what some Yushchenko supporters charged was Russian interference in Ukraine's electoral process. In the run-up to voting, Putin traveled twice to Ukraine and praised Yushchenko's rival, Viktor Yanukovych, then the prime minister, whose campaign staff was stocked with Kremlin political consultants.
"You know that Russia has never acted behind the scenes in post-Soviet space," Putin said. "We have never acted [in a way that would] bypass the government, and the same pertains to Ukraine. Lately, we have only been doing what the Ukrainian government asked. You know this, it's not a secret. We only hope that we have the same trustworthy relations with you."
Shortly before leaving Kiev on Monday morning, Yushchenko signed a decree appointing Tymoshenko acting prime minister; officials expect a vote on her appointment, which must be approved by parliament, in early February.
Tymoshenko, 44, was the darling of the crowd on Independence Square in Kiev during the Orange Revolution, the street protest movement that erupted after a controversial Nov. 21 presidential runoff in which Yanukovych was declared the winner. The election was subsequently declared fraudulent and the result overturned by the Supreme Court, which ordered a Dec. 26 rerun.
Tymoshenko's fiery speeches, along with her alternating folkloric and high-fashion dress, were in sharp contrast to Yushchenko's more conservative appearance and speaking style. But her radical pronouncements and her mocking wit, sometimes directed at Putin, galvanized Yushchenko's political enemies as much as they energized the crowd in Independence Square.
As energy minister, Tymoshenko was also controversial. Her extraction of taxes from a shadowy energy industry unsettled powerful business interests and led to her and Yushchenko being fired by the president, Leonid Kuchma.
Tymoshenko also served as deputy prime minister under Pavlo Lazarenko, who was convicted of fraud, money-laundering and extortion in the United States in June. She was briefly jailed in Ukraine on charges of bribery, money-laundering, corruption and abuse of power while working for Unified Energy Systems, a now-defunct gas trading company.
Questions have been raised about the origins of Tymoshenko's considerable wealth. Russian officials have issued an arrest warrant, accusing her of forgery and gas smuggling in connection with her activities as head of the gas trading firm in the mid-1990s. She has denied the charges, dismissing them as politically motivated.
Yushchenko said at a separate news conference Monday evening that he had discussed Tymoshenko's situation with Putin when he was asked if the new prime minister would be able to travel to Russia. "I was satisfied with the answer," he said, declining to elaborate.
Putin did not comment directly on the appointment, but the head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Arkady Volsky, said it would be "a serious mistake" if parliament approved her as prime minister.
But Sergei Markov, a Kremlin political consultant, said in a recent interview that although Tymoshenko is "radical in her tactics, she is not anti-Russian," and that the Kremlin would work with her. In recent interviews, Tymoshenko stressed the importance of Russia-Ukraine relations.