Yushchenko appoints 'anti-Russian' PM

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The Independent Online

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, maintained his famously collected composure yesterday as Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine's newly inaugurated President and the man he did not want to win the election, visited him in Moscow.

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, maintained his famously collected composure yesterday as Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine's newly inaugurated President and the man he did not want to win the election, visited him in Moscow.

Yesterday was in many respects a bad day for the Russian leader. Mr Yushchenko chose the first foreign trip of his presidency to appoint a radical firebrand, Julia Tymoshenko, as his acting Prime Minister. Ms Tymoshenko is viewed by the Kremlin as being anti-Russian despite her claims to the contrary and is wanted on corruption charges in Russia, charges she strongly denies.

Her appointment was something of a surprise. Mr Yush-chenko had been expected to select a more moderate candidate to appease Moscow and the largely Russian- speaking east of the country. Asked to comment on her appointment yesterday, Mr Putin replied: "It is not for us to evaluate the new government."

To his disappointment, Mr Putin was also given a strong signal that Ukraine would not sign up to Russia's pet project of the moment, the so-called Single Economic Space. Without Ukraine's participation, the project must be in doubt.

But if Mr Putin was upset he did not show it and smoothly fielded questions, claiming that not a single divisive issue had cropped up in their talks. Mr Putin also strongly denied allegations that Moscow had interfered in Ukraine's tumultuous election although he had congratulated Mr Yushchenko's arch-rival on a victory that later turned out to be fraudulent.

In the event, Mr Yushchenko was able to edge out the pro-Kremlin Viktor Yanukovych and embarrass Mr Putin, who had visited Ukraine twice during the election campaign to offer his support to the Russian-speaking candidate.

But yesterday Mr Putin argued that Russia had not acted improperly. "Russia never plays behind the scenes in the post-Soviet space," he said. "It has never worked with the opposition bypassing the national leadership. We did what the incumbent Ukrainian leadership asked us to do."

Mr Yushchenko went out of his way, nonetheless, to reassure Mr Putin that he valued Ukraine's relationship with Russia, regardless of his own ambitions for his country to join the European Union. Conspicuously, he did not don the orange scarf that symbolised his dramatic climb to power, and he spoke of Russia as Ukraine's "eternal strategic ally."

But he appeared to pour cold water on Mr Putin's repeated invitations for Ukraine to sign up to the common market of former Soviet states known as the Single Economic Space. He said Ukraine would have to do what was right for its national interest and it did not want to "block the road" to other markets, a clear reference to the EU.

If Mr Putin got his way, the Single Economic Space would group Ukraine with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in a special economic union. But Mr Yushchenko is understood to view it as a ploy to pull Ukraine back into Russia's sphere of influence and believes it could jeopardise his country's aspirations to join the EU.

Although Russia is unlikely to express any reservations about Ukraine's hopes of joining the EU, it is no secret that it feels deeply uncomfortable about its ambitions to join Nato, a subject that is likely to be an enduring source of tension.

The European Commission vice-president, Margot Wallstrom, said yesterday that Ukrainian membership of the EU was "realistic", adding: "We have discussed this a lot in the Commission and agree that eventually it is a realistic vision for the future that Ukraine should join without today going out and saying we have a concrete date or an offer," she said.

But other EU officials have been more cautious. The EU's two top external relations officials have drafted a 10-point plan which offers Kiev closer economic and trade ties with the EU but their proposals are silent on the prospect of the former Soviet state's accession.

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