BRUSSELS, (AP) — Improving ties with the European Union is a "key priority" for Ukraine, the country's newly-elected President Victor Yanukovych said Monday as the EU expressed support for plans to reform Ukraine's vital gas sector.
"Our priorities will include integration into the European Union, bringing up constructive relations with the Russian Federation, and developing friendly relations with strategic partners such as the United States," Yanukovych said.
Making his first foreign trip since his inauguration last week, Yanukovych said concluding an association agreement with the EU to allow free trade and visa-free travel between Ukraine and the 27-nation bloc tops the agenda of his talks in Brussels. He proposed the EU send a technical mission to Kyiv to study ways in which the bloc can support his administration's reforms.
"For Ukraine, European integration is a key priority in our foreign policy, and this is also a key element in our strategy for the social and economic reforms we are going to carry out," Yanukovych said after meeting European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Yanukovych, who defeated the pro-Western Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has said he wants to pursue a more balanced foreign policy than his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, who alienated Moscow with his pro-American policies and sought membership in NATO.
Yanukovych is heading to Moscow on Friday to strike concrete deals with the Kremlin.
Ukrainian officials say rather than taking sides, Yanukovych is seeking to position the country as a bridge between Europe and Russia. They say the talks in Brussels are focusing on energy policy and the easing of EU visa requirements for Ukrainians.
Ukraine is an important energy partner for the EU because Ukrainian pipelines transport Russian natural gas exports to the 27-nation bloc.
Yanukovych has said in the past he would seek to amend a 2009 gas deal with Russia that ended a bitter contract dispute between the two neighbors that resulted in a two-week shutdown of gas supplies to Europe. He has invited Moscow to take part in a consortium along with Western Europe to jointly operate Ukraine's pipeline network.
"We also discussed natural gas deliveries to European consumers," Yanukovych told journalists during the joint press conference with Barroso. "To make that goal come true, we will enhance our relations with Russia ... and the modernization of our (gas pipeline) infrastructure."
Barroso said an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine could be concluded within a year. This would allow Ukrainian exporters free access to a European market of 500 million people and may double trade between the two, he said.
Barroso played down suggestions that improved Ukrainian ties with Moscow would come at the expense of relations with the EU.
"We don't believe that developing relations with the EU is to the detriment of Russia, or to the contrary. We too have very close relations with Russia," he said.
Barroso also called on Yanukovych to renegotiate a bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which as been on hold since last fall. The IMF froze a $16.4 billion loan to Ukraine after Kyiv balked at demands for cuts in energy subsidies and government spending.
Yanukovych also met with EU President Herman van Rompuy, who said they had discussed a summit between Ukraine and EU leaders later this year.
Although Yanukovych has in the past said he would not follow his predecessor's policy of seeking membership in NATO, on Monday he noted there would be no change to its status as a member of the alliance's outreach program.
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