(AP) - The presidents of four former Soviet bloc countries held meetings on Ukraine's Crimea peninsula Thursday as part of efforts by President Viktor Yushchenko and other leaders to forge a counterbalance to Russia's regional dominance.

Mr. Yushchenko and his Polish counterpart, Aleksander Kwasniewski, were the first two leaders to sit down for talks in the Black Sea region Thursday,  Yushchenko's press office said in a statement.

The two discussed developments in neighboring Belarus, which is locked in dispute with Poland over the status of ethnic Poles there and which has also crossed swords with Ukraine and Georgia.

The dispute with Belarus "doesn't have a positive impact on bilateral relations," Yushchenko was quoted as saying by his press office. On Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka said he wants to set up a working group with Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia to coordinate their policy toward Minsk. He also discussed with Polish political leaders the idea of opening a radio station to broadcast into Belarus in support of pro-democracy groups.

Yushchenko later met with Lithuania's Valdas Adamkus for discussions on boosting trade and cooperation in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, Yushchenko's office said. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili joined the three presidents later.

Relations with Russia were expected to dominate talks at a joint meeting of the four leaders scheduled for Friday.

Moscow has strong influence over political, economic and military affairs in the former Soviet states, a region it considers part of its sphere of influence. Since mass uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia brought Western-leaning leadership to power, those two former Soviet states have increasingly looked for ways to move out from under Russia's shadow. Poland and Lithuania, meanwhile, are European Union members.

Last Friday, Western-leaning Messrs. Yushchenko and Saakashvili called for an alliance that would unite democracies of the Baltic, Black Sea and Caspian regions, in a move likely to anger the Kremlin. The alliance's name, the Commonwealth of Democratic Choice, is similar to the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance of 12 ex-Soviet nations that includes both Georgia and Ukraine.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk said Thursday that the new alliance is not an "alternative for the CIS." He said the new alliance had no administrative staff or official structure and was essentially just a concept for now.


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