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Putin heads for Ukraine to boost ties, chair ex-Soviet republics' summit 
January 27, 2003

Russian President Vladimir Putin headed to Ukraine on Monday to kick off a "Russia in Ukraine Year" designed to boost ties between the two countries and chair an informal summit of leaders of 12 post-Soviet republics. 

Putin was due to meet his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma on Tuesday for talks on stepping up commercial relations, particularly in the light of a slump in the volume of trade of around 20 percent last year. 

The "Russia in Ukraine Year" programme comprises a series of exhibitions, trade fairs, exchanges and concerts celebrating the historic ties between the two nations, and comes in response to a similar "Ukraine in Russia Year" last year. Russia is by far Ukraine's biggest trading partner, accounting for 18 percent of its exports and 36 percent of its imports. 

However the two countries' relations have not always run smoothly, and several hundred Ukrainian nationalists demonstrated Monday outside Kiev's Palace of Culture to protest at the "Russia in Ukraine Year", many of them carrying banners demanding a Russian apology for the 1933 famine. 

In that year, millions of Ukrainians died as a result of Stalin's forced collectivisation of agriculture in what had previously been considered a regional bread-basket. 

One protester said it was "indecent that this event should take place at the same time as the 70th anniversary of the genocide." 

The two countries have also still to settle a minor dispute over their common land border, although a foreign ministry official said an agreement could be signed on Putin's visit. 

On Wednesday Putin will open an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose grouping of 12 former Soviet republics. 

The event's significance has already been diminished by the absence of the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenstan and Uzbekistan, each of whom has found other more pressing matters to deal with on that day. 

The agenda is to include the creation of a free-exchange zone within the CIS and cooperation in the energy sector, the Ukrainian presidency said. 

On the sidelines of the summit, Putin is likely to meet Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze to build on the tentative foundations for developing better relations that they established at their last meeting at a CIS summit at Chisinau last October. 

Russian-Georgian ties have been at a low ebb for the past three years since Moscow sent its troops into Chechnya, on Georgia's northern border, as Russia has accused Tbilisi of tolerating the presence of Chechen rebels on its territory. 

CIS leaders are also expected to discuss an extension to the mandate of the Russian buffer force in Abkhazia, Georgia's breakaway western region. 

The buffer force, whose mandate expired on December 31, 2002, has become a political football, with Tbilisi alternately calling for its removal and saying it can stay. 

Putin is also expected to play to Ukrainian sensitivities to offset the country's occasional leanings towards NATO and the West at a time when Ukraine has been cold-shouldered by Western capitals. 

The Atlantic alliance has wooed the former Soviet republic on several occasions, aggravating Russian fears regarding NATO's eastward expansion, and Putin highlighted the importance Russia accords to its ties with Ukraine by naming a former prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, ambassador to Kiev. 

But Kuchma is now under fire from the United States for alleged illegal sales of a sophisticated radar system to Iraq and has turned for Russia for diplomatic support. 

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