Ukraine's pro-Russia head visits anxious EU leaders

BRUSSELS: New Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych visits Brussels Monday, his first foreign trip, with European leaders hoping to hear that his pro-Russian reputation won't reverse Kiev's recent turn to the West.

The importance which the EU places on Ukraine was amply displayed last week when EU foreign and security affairs chief Catherine Ashton missed an EU defence ministers' meeting in order to attend Yanukovych's investiture in Kiev.

Part of Europe's great interest is due to Ukraine's role as a key transit country for Russian natural gas, a major source of energy in many EU nations.

The new Ukrainian leader has vowed to follow a path of neutrality in a switch from the strongly pro-Western stance of the defeated Orange Revolution leaders.

Such talk fuels EU fears that his country of 46 million people, bridging Russia and the European Union, will veer off on a more Moscow-friendly course than his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko chose.

Yushchenko was a strong proponent of Ukraine joining both the European Union and NATO.

In contrast, Yanukovych is not scheduled to hold talks at the NATO headquarters in Brussels.

He has said he sees the former Soviet republic as a "non-aligned European country," effectively putting an end to any ambitions to joining NATO, a prospect which had angered Moscow.

Yanukovych's stance regarding the EU remains more ambiguous, though European leaders and political observers have noted that he will be travelling first to Europe and then on to Russia.

"He needs to show he is not a Russian puppet," said Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

Yanukovych's trip could even "provoke a jealous reaction in Moscow," said Dmitriy Vydrin, an independent political analyst in Kiev.

Upon his arrival on Monday, Yanukovych has scheduled meetings with EU president Herman Van Rompuy, EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and Ashton.

They will be giving their guest the red-carpet treatment as they attempt to discover which path he is planning to take.

In comments likely to be welcomed in Brussels, a top Yanukovych aide said ahead of his trip that the president would not seek to bring Ukraine into a Moscow-backed customs union comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

However other sources close to Yanukovych have not ruled out the possibility, which would be incompatible with Ukraine's ambition of creating a free-trade zone with the European Union.

"It would be a renaissance of the USSR," one Ukrainian source said, while admitting Europe could offer Kiev plenty of incentives, a key factor for a country which suffered a 15 percent contraction of its economy last year amid the global crisis.

Last May the EU launched an Eastern Partnership to "accelerate political association and further economic integration" between its 27 member states and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine -- all previously under Soviet influence.

Brussels will also be hoping that Yanukovych will advance reforms which have stalled amid the political ructions which Europe hopes the presidential election on February 7 will have damped down.

But that hasn't happened yet.

Beaten presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko has refused to recognise Yanukovych's victory and remains the country's prime minister.

The other hot topic will be supplies of Russian natural gas that transit via Ukraine. The EU will want reassurances that there will be no repetition of the Russia-Ukraine gas disputes of recent years, including the one in January 2009 that disrupted supplies to over a dozen European countries.

Yanukovych will want to discuss the creation of a consortium between Russian energy giant Gazprom and European countries to upgrade Ukraine's pipelines, according to Nico Lange of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kiev.

Under Yushchenko, the participation of Russia in such a consortium would have been unthinkable.