Friday, September 15, 2006

NATO on Hold

NATO Membership is not a priority of the govenment with only 12-25% support

Ukrainian Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, shafts Ukraine President's NATO ambitions. "NATO Membership is not Ukraine's main stategic priority".

Opinion polls show that most Ukrainian's oppose NATO membership with support hovering between 12% to 25%.

Viktor Yanukovych told senior officials that his coalition government would continue reforms meant to bring it closer to the rest of Europe.

Ukraine Says NATO Membership on Hold
By CONSTANT BRAND, Associated Press Writer
9:51 AM PDT, September 14, 2006

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych told NATO on Thursday that he was putting moves toward membership in the alliance on hold, but he said the former Soviet republic still wanted to join the European Union.

"Joining NATO is a matter of time. Currently, there is still no support for this issue in the Ukrainian society," Yanukovych said after talks at NATO headquarters. "The support has decreased over the past two years."

Ukraine's previous, pro-Western government had hoped NATO would give the country a plan preparing the way for membership at a summit in November and was hopeful it could get an invitation to join as early as 2008.

Yanukovych, on his first visit since the March parliamentary elections returned him to the premiership, said eventual NATO membership would have to be submitted to a referendum, but that such a vote could only be held after Ukraine had undergone economic and political reforms.

Yanukovych and President Viktor Yushchenko have sparred over future ties with NATO. After Yanukovych declared last month that Ukraine would not launch its bid for membership at the November summit, Yushchenko suggested the country would not "veer one iota" from its plan to join.

Under Ukraine's constitution, the president is in charge of foreign policy, but on a question such as NATO membership he would need the support of the prime minister and government. Yushchenko has assented to the idea of a referendum on the issue.

"Membership of NATO will be the subject of ... a national referendum," Yanukovych told reporters, adding that the previous government had done a poor job of selling NATO, keeping in place old Cold War stereotypes.

He said that Russia would remain a key partner for Kiev, saying Moscow remained one of Ukraine's "strategic interests." He added that his country could act as a bridge between the EU and Russia "through which greater cooperation and closer partnership can be achieved."

During his stop at EU headquarters, Yanukovych told senior officials that his coalition government would continue reforms meant to bring it closer to the rest of Europe.

"We have the firm intention to have excellent relations with the EU and a stable relationship, which will bring us in the long term to accession of the European Union," he said after a breakfast meeting with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The EU commissioner, however, said the 25-nation bloc at this time had no plans to offer Kiev membership, and instead suggested the two negotiate a new so-called enhanced agreement that would include a free trade pact -- but only after Kiev joins the World Trade Organization.

"At this moment clearly there is no membership perspective," Ferrero-Waldner said.

Yanukovych, who returned to office as prime minister in this year's parliamentary elections, said few Ukrainians -- maybe 12 percent to 25 percent -- supported the idea of joining NATO. "For the time being we are looking at the enlargement of our cooperation with NATO," he said.

Opinion polls show that most Ukrainians oppose alliance membership; many are distrustful of their former Cold War foe, while others fear membership would irretrievably harm relations with Russia while bringing little significant benefit.

Opposition to NATO membership is particularly strong in eastern and southern Ukraine, where Yanukovych draws most of his support.

The visit was the first chance by Brussels to test Yanukovych, whose fraud-marred attempt to win the Ukrainian presidency in 2004 sparked the Orange Revolution protests.

His campaign in that election was strongly supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his ultimate defeat by the pro-Western Yushchenko was seen as not only a crushing loss for Yanukovych but also as a humiliation for the Kremlin.

Yanukovych rebounded less than two years later to lead his center-right party to victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and went on to form a governing coalition that includes the Socialist Party and the Communists.

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Associated Press writer Paul Ames contributed to this report from NATO headquarters in Brussels.