Russia, Ukraine Vow to Create Economic Power

APUkrainian President Leonid Kuchma, left, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, and President Vladimir Putin in Odessa on Sunday.
ODESSA, Ukraine -- Russia and Ukraine vowed Sunday to strengthen economic ties and boost trade to forge a new post-Soviet financial power to compete on European and world markets.

President Vladimir Putin said both states had to work together to regain their economic and political clout, underlining Moscow's desire to keep its biggest neighbor in its fold.

Putin said trade in energy, defense and technology would be stepped up in what was seen as a boost for Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma ahead of a parliamentary election this month. The poll will be watched closely by Western observers who hope to see the country shed its Soviet past.

"[Economic cooperation] helps because we will become stronger ... as partners for Europe," Putin said after talks in Ukraine's Black Sea port of Odessa.

"We will be able to strongly influence the development of Europe's economy, we will be taken more seriously and our own economies will be more stable," he added.

Kuchma, whose political future is seen to be tied to the success of the so-called parties of power in the poll on March 31, hinted that Kiev's earlier overtures to European organizations had fallen flat.

"Weakness is not liked by Europe, but strength is. We can only become strong by ourselves, no one else is going to do that for us," Kuchma said following the talks with Putin and Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin.

He said Ukraine would become a focus for gas and oil provision to Europe from the former Soviet Union.

Moscow and Kiev have had a rocky 10 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine's early enthusiasm for the West rang alarm bells in Moscow and prompted officials to become largely uncritical of its neighbor.

Putin was one of the few leaders who was quiet as Kuchma came under pressure for his alleged role in the scandal of a murdered journalist who had criticized the authorities. Kuchma denied any involvement.

Ahead of the election, a series of European and U.S. officials have encouraged Ukraine to shed its Soviet past and turn to the West, urging Kiev to stick to the democratic rules.

Russian officials earlier have said they are confident the poll will be free and fair.