Ukraine's new president, Viktor Yanukovych, flies to Russia on Friday to improve ties between the two states damaged under his predecessor and soured by a series of disagreements ranging from gas transit to Europe to the future of Russia's Black Sea Fleet base in the Crimean peninsula.

Moscow will be the second foreign visit by Yanukovych since his inauguration on February 25 after a visit to Brussels, where he worked hard to find the delicate balance between good ties with the European Union and Russia.

Pressed by economic hardships in Ukraine, which has been badly hit by the global economic crisis, Yanukovych made clear he wanted to focus on boosting economic ties with Russia and winning a new gas deal critical for the country, which is the main transit hub on the way from Siberia to Europe.

Russian officials and gas executives have reacted skeptically Yanukovych's gas overtures and rejected the idea of re-negotiating gas deals, but Russia is ready to roll out the red carpet for Yanukovych.

In a last-minute decision, the status of his stay in Moscow was upgraded to "state visit" from "working visit."

President Dmitry Medvedev has refused to meet Yanukovych's predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, whose anti-Russian rhetoric irked Moscow.

"The meeting of heads of the two states is expected to give serious impetus to the development of the whole complex of Russian-Ukrainian relations, to the revival of their truly neighborly and mutually beneficial nature," a Kremlin source told RIA Novosti ahead of the visit.

However experts say that outside the diplomatic niceties, Moscow wants to see major changes in Kiev's approach to painful bilateral issues, including the future of the Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol and the status of the Russian language before discussing lucrative gas deals.

A Kremlin source told RIA Novosti that both leaders were expected to discuss the status of the Black Sea Fleet base, due to be closed by 2017, and a sensitive issue of borderline in the Kerch Strait - the scene of several diplomatic conflicts in the past.

The source also said Medvedev and Yanukovych would discuss European issues and preparations for the anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, but made no mention of energy talks.

Russia and Ukraine have long fought over natural gas deliveries, jeopardizing supplies to Europe, which gets around a quarter of its gas from Russia. In the latest row at the start of 2009, Russia halted all deliveries via Ukraine's pipeline system for two weeks.

Last year's gas conflict was resolved when a deal on gas imports and transit was agreed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Yulia Tymoshenko, who lost to Yanukovych in the February 7 presidential election runoff.


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