New Ukrainian president could disappoint supporters in the Kremlin

By Philip P. Pan
Monday, March 1, 2010

MOSCOW -- The inauguration of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine's president was celebrated in Russian media last week as a long-sought victory for the Kremlin, which tried to put him in office five years ago, only to be thwarted by the mass protests known as the Orange Revolution.

Now that he has taken power, though, the man who had been Russia's preferred choice to govern the former Soviet republic could prove to be far less accommodating to Moscow's interests -- and more open to Washington's -- than the Kremlin would like.

Breaking with tradition, Yanukovych is scheduled to make his first official trip abroad Monday to Brussels, the seat of the European Union, instead of Moscow, which he will visit Friday. The decision follows a campaign in which he labored to shed his image as a Kremlin lackey and recast himself as a proponent of further integration with Europe as well as closer ties with Russia.

The line that Yanukovych and his advisers have used is that he will be a pro-Ukrainian president, not a pro-Russian or pro-Western one. In his inaugural address, he pledged that Ukraine would serve as a "bridge between East and West, an integral part of Europe and the former Soviet Union at the same time" and "a European state outside of any bloc."

How such rhetoric will be translated into policy, especially in Ukraine's strategically important energy sector, remains uncertain and will be the subject of close scrutiny in Yanukovych's meetings this week and in the months ahead.

Many analysts say Moscow is more likely than the West to be disappointed, if only because it wants much more from a Yanukovych presidency. In five years of bitter feuding with his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-West hero of the Orange Revolution, the Kremlin built up a substantial store of grievances that plunged relations between Russia and Ukraine to a low point.

Near the top of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's agenda is greater control over Ukrainian pipelines that transport much of the natural gas that Russia sells to Europe. Other goals include scaling back Ukraine's cooperation with NATO, extending basing rights for Russia's Black Sea fleet in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, and providing broader market access to Russian investors and businesses.

"I think that the elites here expect much more than Yanukovych could possibly give them," said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst and scholar in Moscow, noting that the new president has been portrayed in Russian media as "a very pro-Russian politician."

In reality, though, Oreshkin said, Yanukovych is under pressure to broaden his political base, in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, by winning over voters in western Ukraine who are wary of Russia and feel more strongly about integration with Europe.

Washington and its European allies, analysts said, have more limited expectations, in part because they have looked on with frustration for five years as Yushchenko bickered with other Orange Revolution leaders and failed to deliver on the promise of the pro-democracy uprising.

"If the West was disappointed with Ukraine for the last five years, I think now it's Russia's turn," said Samuel Charap, a scholar of the region at the D.C.-based Center for American Progress. "If you believe the Russian press, they arrived with a wish list . . . and I don't think they'll get everything."

Charap said Washington's goals will be modest in comparison. U.S. and European officials will urge Yanukovych to continue cooperation with NATO and adopt legislation authorizing joint exercises, he said. They will also push for economic measures that would unlock a suspended emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund.

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