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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yanukovych Faces Tough Sochi Talks

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych heads to the Black Sea port of Sochi for a two-day visit Tuesday with hopes of winning a better deal on gas and showing that his country's often rocky relations with Russia can be improved during his new tenure.

The visit, however, could be a relatively ceremonial affair, as Russian officials have not said what specifically they want to discuss with Yanukovych.

Yanukovych, a Kremlin-backed unsuccessful candidate in Ukraine's 2004 presidential elections, has promised to "soften the sharp edges" in Russian-Ukrainian relations during his trip, and said Monday that he aimed to focus on securing gas imports and preparing a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, Interfax reported.

Yanukovych is due to meet with Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in Sochi, but it was not clear Monday whether Putin, who is currently vacationing at his Sochi summer residence, would meet with Yanukovych.

Relations between Moscow and Kiev have been strained since the pro-Western Yushchenko beat Yanukovych in a December 2004 re-run election. The vote was rerun after Ukraine's Supreme Court ruled that the previous one, in November 2004, fraudulently went to Yanukovych, and the Ukrainian capital was gripped by Orange Revolution street protests.

The rift grew wider during a gas dispute in January 2006, when Gazprom turned off supplies to Ukraine and subsequently to some parts of Europe.

Despite the Kremlin's previous backing for Yanukovych, this week's talks on gas and other issues are not expected to deliver major breakthroughs, analysts in Moscow and Kiev said Monday.

In the run-up to the visit, Yanukovych indicated that Ukraine could postpone entry to the World Trade Organization and said the gas deal with Russia for supplies this year would not be changed.

Yanukovych's statements "are designed to set a more friendly mood for the meeting, to give the impression that Yanukovych is easier to deal with," said Yekaterina Malofeyeva, director of new markets strategy at Renaissance Capital investment bank.

"But I'm not sure that Russia will buy it," she said.

Analysts polled Monday agreed that even if the aspects of mutual dislike between the two countries' political elites were to be left out of the picture, their relations long ago evolved into a very practical and commercial exchange. Gas is just one example.

"For Russia, it is either some kind of access to control of the pipeline, or gas prices that are as close as possible to world prices," Malofeyeva said.

"Yanukovych is going to try lower the gas price, but it would be a very symbolic attempt," Alexei Mushak, political analyst with Kiev's Institute of National Strategies, said by telephone Monday.

Yanukovych's closeness to Moscow during his previous stint as prime minister, from 2002 to 2004, under President Leonid Kuchma is unlikely to win Ukraine any leniency in commercial deals, analysts said.

"In Kuchma's era, economic relations between the two countries were often based on personal friendships. Those times are gone," Mushak said.

Ukraine currently buys gas from Turkmenistan, Russia and Kazakhstan. Gazprom's gas is sold at $230 per 1,000 cubic meters, while about 50 percent of Ukraine's gas comes from Turkmenistan at about $65 per 1,000 cubic meters. Another 10 percent comes from Kazakhstan at $140 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Ukraine and Russia may join forces in an effort to persuade Turkmenistan not to drastically raise its prices for Ukraine. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has threatened to raise the price to about $100 per 1,000 cubic meters, which would effectively leave Ukraine unable to foot the bill.

"Ukraine needs to make sure that all price changes are carried out gradually," said Valery Nesterov, oil and gas analyst at Troika Dialog investment bank. "Russia, meanwhile, needs economic stability in Ukraine, since Ukraine is Russia's neighbor and the country that transports Russian gas."

 Ukraine will stick with RosUkrEnergo, a joint venture between Gazprom and two Ukrainian businessmen that imports gas from Russia and Central Asia, newly appointed Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuriy Boiko said Monday, describing the company as a key for future stability, Reuters reported.

"RosUkrEnergo's presence in this scheme is a key to stabilize prices," he told reporters in Kiev. "We have an understanding and upcoming talks will secure this positive trend."