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Putin in Ukraine to mend fences


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KIEV, Ukraine -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Ukraine for a brief but significant visit aimed at putting the two countries' relations back on track after a period of political tension over Ukraine's recent presidential elections.

Putin is scheduled to hold talks with President Viktor Yushchenko and dine with Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who until last month was being threatened with arrest on bribery charges if she tried to enter Russia.

Yushchenko's office was billing the trip -- scheduled to last only a few hours -- as a chance for "eye to eye" talks.

"Russia is our strategic partner and we believe that in the course of this visit we will lay the groundwork for a new stage in the development of Ukrainian-Russian relations," Yushchenko said ahead of the visit, according to his office.

During the election campaign last fall, Putin threw his support to Yushchenko's opponent, visiting Ukraine twice, in a heavy handed attempt to influence events in Ukraine. The turmoil led to the Orange Revolution and the resulting election of Yushchenko.

The fence-mending has already begun. Yushchenko's first official visit as president was to Moscow in January. This is Putin's first visit to Kiev since the election late last year.

Friday, in Paris, at a meeting with the leaders of France, Germany and Spain, Putin said he has "no preference" for any political group in Ukraine and vowing Russia will do everything to help Ukraine avoid potential political crisis.

Topping the list of subjects the two presidents will discuss is the proposed economic union of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, the "Common Economic Space."

The idea, a kind of Common Market for former republics of the Soviet Union, is strongly supported by Moscow.

Yushchenko, who is orienting his country to the west and eventual membership in the European Union, has been non-committal, noting that he would agree to membership in the union only if it does not damage Ukraine's chance to join the EU.

During his January visit to Moscow, Yushchenko vowed to define Kiev's position on the Common Economic Space within two months. Putin is expected to press him to decide the matter soon. A summit on the issue is scheduled for April 7.

Putin and Yushchenko also are expected to discuss energy issues, especially about the concept of creating an international consortium to develop the system of natural gas transport through Ukraine.

Kiev want to include European investors in the project; Russia wants to agree with Ukraine separately before inviting international investors.

Timoshenko, the fiery politician whom Moscow considers radical and anti-Russian has reassured Russian business leaders that they have nothing to fear from her, pledging in early March that "the ice that has been artificially created between Russia and the new Ukrainian government will melt."

CNN's Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty contributed to this report


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