Ukraine Prime Minister aims to mend fences with U.S

(Associated Press) - He was cast by critics as the Russian-backed bad guy during Ukraine's Orange Revolution two years ago, the burly politician who almost stole the presidential election from the telegenic, pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko. But Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, scheduled to arrive in Washington Sunday for a four-day visit, says he hopes to renovate his image in the West during his meetings with U.S. officials.

According to his Web site, Yanukovych will meet Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman. He also plans to meet with business leaders in New York, reports Trend.

As for all the news reports that portray him as a tool of the Kremlin, a foe of reform? Spin, Yanukovych said. "As for my party and my myself, we adhere and will adhere to policies that are pro-Ukrainian, and will always defend the national interests of Ukraine," he said.

The Orange Revolution began hours after polls closed in the Nov. 21, 2004, presidential election between Yanukovych, the Kremlin's favorite, and Yushchenko, who called for closer ties to the West. As the Central Election Commission began churning out fraudulent vote counts in favor of Yanukovych, Yushchenko summoned his supporters to Independence Square for night after night of protests.

Twelve days later, the Supreme Court declared the vote count fraudulent and ordered a rerun, which Yushchenko won.

Yanukovych and his supporters complained bitterly that the mass protests, supported by many political leaders in Europe and the U.S., robbed him of the presidency.

But now Yanukovych praises the demonstrators. "On the question of democracy and freedom of speech, no one can deny the country changed for the better," he said. "There is more freedom of speech, more democracy, more freedom."

His political resurrection began in March, when he was the top vote-getter in a parliamentary vote described as Ukraine's freest and fairest. It climaxed in August, when he was named prime minister in a political deal with his former foes.

Yushchenko and Yanukovych share power in the awkward arrangement that was initially billed as an effort to unite Ukraine but instead has turned into a tug-of-war for influence, with the president largely on the losing end.

In the latest battle, lawmakers on Friday fired a key ally of the president, the pro-Western Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, along with Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko said the ministers' dismissals will be challenged before the nation's highest court.

Yanukovych is still regarded as the Kremlin's friend in Ukraine and it has paid off for him. He helped strike a deal on gas prices for next year that, while still a significant increase for the ex-Soviet republic, is lower than what Russia proposed to neighboring states.

Of late, Yanukovych has tried not to overtly antagonize the West. For instance, while delaying Ukraine's membership bid into NATO, he does support continuing cooperation with the alliance. On Tuesday, he called the U.S. "a strategic partner of Ukraine."

The prime minister is trying to improve his soft powers along with his hard-nosed political moves. Before the Orange Revolution, he came across as stiff and grumpy when he met journalists, and when interviews ended, he simply stood up and left.

Now, he smiles and mingles. Meeting with reporters on Tuesday, he loitered long enough to autograph copies of a book celebrating his first 100 days in office. Heading out the door, Yanukovych stopped suddenly, as if remembering something, and spun around to say goodbye.

Political analyst Mykhailo Pohrebinsky said that Yanukovych clearly had changed his presentation.

"We see that he says democratic things and poses himself as a protector of the freedom of speech," Pohrebinsky said. "Whether this is sincere, I can't say."

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