MOSCOW -- Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, visiting Moscow on a trip to mend relations after a bitter election campaign, appointed top ally Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister yesterday, a move that was expected to anger the Kremlin.
Yushchenko, who was inaugurated Sunday, initially said he would need more consultations before nominating a prime minister. His hesitation seemed to be aimed at avoiding a provocative decision just before his Moscow trip, his first foreign visit as president.
But after arriving in Moscow, Yushchenko's office said he had nominated Tymoshenko, 44, who is widely disliked by the Kremlin. Moscow supported Yushchenko's opponent in the presidential campaign, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
Tymoshenko, a firebrand opposition leader, was a key driving force behind a wave of opposition protests dubbed the "Orange Revolution" that paved the way for Yushchenko's victory in a fiercely contested presidential race that took two elections to settle.
For Yushchenko, the Kremlin meeting was part of his delicate balancing act to move closer to the West while not upsetting relations with his powerful neighbor. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the meeting could help undo the damage of his unsuccessful foray into Ukrainian politics.
Yushchenko told Putin that "Russia is our eternal strategic partner."
"I will not conceal the fact that it was not an easy campaign," Yushchenko said about the presidential election.
While Yushchenko appeared reserved and at times nervous, Putin seemed to go out of his way to be friendly, smiling and warmly receiving the new Ukrainian leader. "We are very happy that this difficult political period in Ukraine has passed, and that a government is in place . . . and we expect that our relations will continue to develop," Putin said.
Russia views Ukraine as a key part of its historic sphere of influence, a major transit route for its oil and gas exports and a buffer between the expanding European Union and NATO.
Moscow is nervous about Yushchenko's plans to quickly integrate the nation of 48 million into Western structures.
On his inauguration day Sunday, Yushchenko reaffirmed his aim to shift Ukraine's focus westward. "Our place is in the European Union," he said to a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 in Independence Square.
For her part, Tymoshenko said last week that she also wants to restart Ukraine's efforts to become a member state of the EU, but that Kiev should not go into the process "half-ready."
"It is a bilateral process, and Ukraine cannot decide by itself when it will join EU," she said.
She also pledged to review murky privatization deals that allowed rich coal and steel magnates from the east to accumulate wealth in the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
After his trip to Moscow, Yushchenko is to embark on several days of visits to Western European countries.
Material from Reuters was included in this report.