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Putin joins Orthodox leaders for religious anniversary in Ukraine

28 july 2013, 13:43
0
©RIA NOVOSTI
©RIA NOVOSTI
President Vladimir Putin travels to Ukraine on Saturday to mark the 1025th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Kievan Rus, in politically-charged celebrations as Russia's neighbour seeks closer integration with the European Union, AFP reports.

The hugely sensitive festivities, which will also see the participation of presidents of Serbia and Moldova, come ahead of a November summit in Vilnius which could see the EU sign a long-delayed Association Agreement with Ukraine.

Since coming to power in 2010, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has performed a tight balancing act by seeking closer European ties while also trying to remain on good terms with prickly Soviet-era master Moscow.

Accompanied by the head of the Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, Putin and his host will play up historic ties between their two majority Orthodox nations.

The two leaders are scheduled to take part in a prayer service in central Kiev and visit the country's main cathedral, the Kiev-Pecherskaya Lavra, on Saturday.

On Sunday, Putin visits the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol which hosts a Russian naval base for joint celebrations of Navy Day.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said closer cooperation would be discussed although no agreements should be signed.

"Issues linked to integration are certainly on the agenda of bilateral ties," he told AFP.

Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, said the outcome of talks during the visit was expected to shape the future of bilateral ties.

"The closer the Eastern Partnership summit where Ukraine will supposedly sign the free trade agreement, the more interest in this topic and negative feelings come from Russia," said Lukyanov.

Kiev-based political analyst Oleksiy Haran said there were "deep contradictions" between Moscow and Kiev.

"Obviously, Putin will put pressure on Yanukovych, will try to dissuade him from signing the Association Agreement with the EU," he said.

Signing of the agreement has been repeatedly postponed after a Ukraine court jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko for seven years in 2011, triggering a dramatic deterioration in ties and making Kiev more vulnerable to Kremlin's advances.

Russia has sought to keep Ukraine in its orbit by exploiting Kiev's differences with the West and offering the ex-Soviet neighbour to join the Moscow-led customs union in exchange for cheaper gas prices.

Kiev has steadfastly resisted the pressure from Moscow which eyes control of Ukraine's prized Soviet-era gas pipeline network.

Repeated haggling over prices has led to interruptions of gas supplies to Europe, most notably in 2009 when Russia turned off the taps to Ukraine in the dead of winter.

Ahead of the arrival of the top guests, authorities in the capital Kiev dramatically beefed up a police presence and sealed off access to a park where the prayer service will be conducted.

Overlooking the Dnipro River, the park hosts a monument to Prince Vladimir the Great revered for converting ancient Rus to Christianity in 988.

Ultra-nationalist party Svoboda (Freedom) said it would bring people out onto the streets to rally against Putin's visit and Ukrainian feminist rights group Femen, known for their bare-breasted stunts, may also join the protests.

A Femen male activist was earlier this week brutally beaten up as a possible act of intimidation ahead of Putin's visit, said the group, blaming the night-time attack on employees of secret services from Ukraine and Russia.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was invited to participate in the festivities but did not confirm his attendance, said a spokesman for the Ukrainian foreign ministry.

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