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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yanukovych Will Make Russia a Top Priority

ReutersYanukovych shaking hands with supporters outside the parliament after being approved as prime minister late Friday.
KIEV -- Viktor Yanukovych was approved as Ukraine's new prime minister Friday, and he immediately declared his intention to improve the country's strained relationship with Russia.

Ukrainian lawmakers approved Yanukovych in a 271-9 vote after Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko nominated his former rival as prime minister. Yushchenko said the alternative -- dissolving the parliament and calling new elections -- would have been a blow to the country.

After the vote, Yanukovych shook hands with Yushchenko and smiled broadly as supporters clapped and cheered. Later, Yanukovych told journalists: "When we shook hands with each other, I felt that we were partners.

"My first visits will be to Brussels, Moscow and the United States," he said. "First of all, I would like to say that we will single out relations with Russia as a priority."

Yushchenko acceded to his arch rival's political comeback after Yanukovych agreed to continue Ukraine's pro-Western course, uphold democratic freedoms and ensure the opposition has equal rights during elections. The "national unity" pact also spells out Ukraine's European Union aspirations and promotes cooperation with NATO, but says membership can only come after a referendum.

Under constitutional changes made in the midst of the Orange Revolution, and now supported only lukewarmly by Yushchenko, the prime minister and the parliament have considerably broader powers, especially over the budget and domestic policy.

The parliament approved Mykola Azarov, a long-term Yanukovych ally, as finance minister and first deputy prime minister, and appointed diplomat Volodymyr Makukha as economy minister.

Yushchenko was entitled under the Constitution to name the foreign and defense ministers, and he renominated his two current appointees to the posts: Boris Tarasyuk and Anatoly Hrytsenko, respectively.

Yanukovych also let the president nominate the interior minister, and Yushchenko retained Yuriy Lutsenko, whose criminal investigations into some of Yanukovych's allies made him one of Party of the Regions' biggest political enemies.

Lutsenko was hospitalized with hypertension on Friday.

Many lawmakers from Yushchenko's party and that of Orange Revolution heroine Yulia Tymoshenko abstained or stayed away altogether from the parliamentary hall on Friday.

Yanukovych's return "is revenge, with an element of humiliation for us," Our Ukraine lawmaker Vyacheslav Kyrylenko said. "We'll see how serious this revenge is."

Yanukovych's Party of the Regions won the most votes in the March parliamentary election, capitalizing on the president's falling popularity due to infighting among his allies and the slow pace of change.

However, since no party won a majority of seats, the country fell into political paralysis as parties argued, maneuvered and shifted alliances.

Yanukovych's Party of the Regions formed a coalition with the Socialists, who had defected from an earlier coalition that included Yushchenko's bloc, and the Communists. The new coalition nominated Yanukovych to be prime minister, the post he had held when he ran against Yushchenko in 2004.

The parliament also swore in Constitutional Court judges on Friday. The court has been without a quorum since late last year, after the parliament refused to swear in Yushchenko's choices or pick their own.

But before the swearing-in, lawmakers prohibited the Constitutional Court from revising the 2004 constitutional changes that transferred considerable presidential powers to the parliamentary majority.

Additionally, the parliament voted to allow foreign troops to participate in military training exercises. Earlier this summer, Yushchenko's government was put in the embarrassing position of canceling planned exercises with U.S. and British troops after anti-NATO protests -- some led by Yanukovych's party.

(AP, Reuters, NYT)