Viktor Yanukovich will meet European Union leaders next Monday on his first foreign trip as Ukraine`s president, opting to visit Brussels before Russia, EU officials said on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
"I will receive the President of Ukraine here in Brussels next Monday; I think it`s the first visit he makes outside his country after his election," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a news briefing.
There was no immediate confirmation by Yanukovich, who has been closely linked with Russia but has been careful to avoid appearing too close to Moscow and has called for gradual integration with Europe.
Yanukovich has faced accusations by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whom he narrowly defeated in a presidential run-off ballot on Feb. 7, of having inherently anti-EU policies. He is due to be inaugurated on Thursday.
"Yanukovich wants to send a clear message to Europe by going to Europe on his first foreign trip," said an EU official, who declined to be identified.
In confirming Yanukovich`s visit, Barroso noted Ukraine`s role as a key transit route for Russian gas as well as the EU`s aim of maintaining "stable, predictable relations with Russia in terms of energy".
"We believe it is in their (Russia`s) interest as the biggest supplier of gas to Europe and also because we are the best client they can have," Barroso said.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic squeezed between Russia and the EU, is a vital transit route for Russian energy to Europe, but supplies have been disrupted on occasion in recent years due to pricing disputes between Moscow and Kiev.
PLAN TO VISIT MOSCOW
Yanukovich`s Regions Party and the Kremlin said last week he would go to Moscow in the first 10 days of March but gave no date.
Yanukovich is widely expected to tilt Ukraine more towards Moscow after relations with Russia deteriorated under departing President Viktor Yushchenko, who sought membership of the Western military alliance NATO.
Yanukovich, the Moscow-backed candidate whose initial election victory was overturned by the 2004 "Orange Revolution" protest against electoral fraud, has also spoken of the importance of cooperation with the 27-member bloc.
Yanukovich will also meet EU President Herman Van Rompuy in Brussels, the EU official said. He is also expected to meet foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
NATO membership is not on the agenda for now and there is little appetite in the EU for Ukraine joining in the near future.
There was no comment from Yanukovich`s press service. Official confirmation of the destination of his first foreign trip as president is likely only after he is sworn in.
A close aide to Yanukovich, Hannah Herman, said discussions were still under way on where he should travel first.
"We must wait to see what the president says -- what is more useful and important for the country," the UNIAN news agency quoted her as saying.
Some political analysts said little should be read into Yanukovich`s choice.
"There is no point in searching for a deep political underlying cause in the duration and order of the visits," Mykhailo Pashkov of the Razumkov think tank was quoted as saying in the newspaper Kommersant Ukraina.
"The European Union and Russia are equally important for Ukraine. Much more important will be the results of these visits."