European integration is high on the agenda of Ukraine's foreign policy, the country's new president said in Brussels. Yanukovych surprised observers by picking Brussels and not Moscow for his first international trip.
"For Ukraine, European integration is a key foreign policy priority," President Viktor Yanukovych told a joint press conference with EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels on Monday, in remarks seen as an effort at tempering his strongly pro-Russia image.
Choosing Brussels as his first destination abroad was clearly symbolic. The new president has been seen as favoring relations with Russia, but he insisted during his election campaign that he wanted a balanced foreign policy.
"As a symbol of that, he's going to the EU first," Susan Stewart, research associate at the German Institute for international and security affairs (SWP), told Deutsche Welle.
Yanukovych, who is also scheduled to meet with EU President Herman Van Rompuy, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, will visit Moscow on Friday.
New foreign policy strategy
Yanukovych's predecessor Viktor Yushchenko strongly backed Ukraine joining both the European Union and NATO, prospects which had alienated Russia.
"Because of that deterioration, there is definitely a need for Yanukovych to improve the relationship with Russia," Stewart said.
But, the analyst added, the Russian approach to the post-Soviet countries has often been hegemonic, with Russia insisting on its dominant role in the region. "Because of this attitude, it might in the mid- to longer term be difficult to have a relationship with Russia," she said. "It depends on how much the Ukrainian side is willing to concede to Russia, for example in the energy sector."
In Brussels on Monday, the Ukrainian leader and his host agreed to seal an association agreement for closer trade, political, social ties within a year. Discussions on the agreement are already underway but have made little progress so far.
Key gas transit
Yanukovych also promised that his country would in future guarantee the safe transit of Russian natural gas to Europe, after problems in recent years. The Ukrainian president has proposed the creation of a consortium with European and Russian participation that could manage the Ukrainian pipeline system, but not own it.
The former Soviet republic, wedged between Russia and EU member state Poland, is an important energy partner for the EU because Ukrainian pipelines transport Russian natural gas, on which Europe is heavily dependent.
"It would make sense to sit down at the table and have the three sides try to come up with an arrangement whereby the infrastructure could be modernized, which would be in everybody's interest," Stewart said.
But, in view of the fact that Yanukovych only narrowly defeated Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in an election run-off last month, the analyst is only cautiously optimistic about Ukrainian foreign policy goals. The country's main problems are domestic, she said.
"If Yanukovych is not able to put Ukraine back on its feet economically and deal with the internal infighting, then I don't think that Ukraine is going to be well-positioned to have any kind of foreign policy at all."