ATTEMPTS by Ukraine’s new president Viktor Yushchenko to mend fences with Russia got off to a bad start yesterday when he named Yulia Tymoshenko, the subject of a Moscow arrest warrant, as his new prime minister.
The announcement came hours before Mr Yushchenko arrived in Moscow to ease tensions with the Kremlin caused by the turmoil surrounding last month’s presidential election.
Russian president Vladimir Putin backed Yushchenko’s rival, Viktor Yanukovich.
The Kremlin is alarmed at Mr Yushchenko’s intention to face westwards, rather than toward Ukraine’s traditional ally, Moscow.
Anxious to ensure good relations with his country’s huge neighbour to the east, Mr Yushchenko very pointedly made Moscow the first stop on a week-long tour of Europe.
But his mission was not made easier by the announcement that Ms Tymoshenko, his deputy in the so-called Orange Revolution, was going to be the new premier.
In Kiev, Ms Tymoshenko is a popular choice: she was the president’s passionate sidekick throughout Orange Revolution which saw huge demonstrations in the streets of Kiev.
The announcement is seen in Ukraine as reward for her support, but in Russia it will be a further obstacle to harmony. Last month, Russian prosecutors accused Ms Tymoshenko of fraud during the 1990s when she was a gas trader.
In public, Mr Putin and Mr Yushchenko were last night polite rather than warm towards each other.
Television pictures showed the two men facing each other around a white table inside the Kremlin. There was no sign of coffee being served.
"We assume, and will continue to assume, that Russia is our eternal strategic ally," said Mr Yushchenko. "That is why I would like to refute all the myths concerning our relationship that were spread in the political kitchen."
Mr Putin said: "There is a very high and deep degree of integration between branches and enterprises of our states."
The Russian president denied accusations by some Yushchenko supporters that Russia had interfered in Ukraine’s political process. "Russia has never worked behind the scenes in post-Soviet countries," Mr Putin claimed. "We hope that, with you, we will have the same trusting relationships as before."
Asked about the choice of Ms Tymoshenko, Mr Putin said: "We must not estimate the new Ukrainian government until it has been fully formed. "
What has not changed with this visit is Mr Yushchenko’s determination, spelled out in his inauguration address, to integrate with the West, with European Union membership the goal.
He seems certain to pull Ukraine out of the Customs Union, a trading bloc centred on Moscow that was created as a counterweight to the EU. Without Ukraine, the pact includes little more than Russia and its client states, including Belarus and Kazakhstan - a blow to the Kremlin’s prestige.
The choice of a premier who faces arrest if she goes to Russia is unlikely to warm relations between Moscow and Kiev, said observers. Olena Prytula, editor of Ukrainian Pravda, said: "I can imagine Putin’s face. It is impossible for her to go to Moscow."
Ms Tymoshenko is the most radical of the possible prime ministers Mr Yushchenko could have picked, and a firm supporter of taking Ukraine into the arms of the West. During the Orange Revolution she was constantly by Mr Yushchenko’s side, admired and also criticised for a shrill, confrontational style.
"Yushchenko shows [by this choice] that he is ready for radical reform," said Ms Prytula. "Tymoshenko may be the one person who can do it."
Later this week Mr Yush- chenko visits the EU, which will need to find a way to embrace the president without further damaging links with Russia.