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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sarkozy Courts Putin-Wary Leaders

ReutersSarkozy embracing Yushchenko while Clinton looks on after a hastily prepared working lunch in Paris on Friday.
France's Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing for his first presidential trip to Russia by courting leaders who have bristled at Moscow's influence on Eastern and Central Europe.

On Friday, he hosted a hastily prepared working lunch with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, whose country is facing post-election tensions between his 2004 Orange Revolution allies and their more Russia-friendly foes.

Before his trip to Moscow on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sarkozy was also to meet Polish President Lech Kaczynski, whose country's relations with Moscow have been rocky since Poland emerged from Soviet control in 1989. He will also meet Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who, like Kaczynski, has welcomed plans for a U.S. missile defense base in his country despite Russian protests.

Since taking office in May, Sarkozy has taken a tougher line than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and some other European leaders toward Russia's increasing assertiveness, especially concerning energy supplies to its neighbors.

His meetings with President Vladimir Putin next week will be watched carefully. Their talks in the Kremlin are expected to focus on the nuclear standoff with Iran and various international hot spots, Sarkozy's spokesman David Martinon said Friday.

Martinon said the timing of the Ukrainian, Polish and Czech visits ahead of Sarkozy's Moscow tour was largely coincidental and was not meant as a warning to Russia.

"Russia is ... a strategic partner with whom it is essential to deepen our dialogue on international issues," Martinon said, though he noted "disaccord" between France and Russia over the future of Kosovo and Iran.

Yushchenko, meanwhile, praised Sarkozy for his support for democracy in Ukraine, where street protests against disputed election results in 2004 helped bring him to power. The tainted results were thrown out and a new election was held, which Yushchenko won.

Sarkozy visited Ukraine soon afterward to support Yushchenko's efforts to open up to the West.

Yushchenko insisted Friday that he had not come to Paris asking for international support "but in the context of the interest France accords the situation in our country." He gave no details about the substance of the talks.

Near-final returns from Ukraine's parliamentary election Sept. 30 pointed to a slim majority for backers of Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution ally, Yulia Tymoshenko. But uncertainty loomed over their coalition talks after Yushchenko urged cooperation with their chief rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, seen as friendly with Moscow.

Yushchenko said Friday that all three leading parties should discuss a coalition government, calling it crucial to the country's stability.

"Everyone must sit around the table" for talks about forming a government, he told reporters in the French presidential palace. "The participation of the three major actors is indispensable to have a solid government and stable parliament."

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was in Paris to promote his new book and for meetings with French officials, ran into Yushchenko at the palace and greeted him with a bear hug.