Ukraine's Yanukovych Halts NATO Entry Talks

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 15, 2006

MOSCOW, Sept. 14 -- Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine said Thursday that his government would suspend negotiations on membership in the NATO alliance, his first major step toward reversing his country's drift away from Russia and toward the West.

"Because of the political situation in Ukraine, we will have to take a pause," Yanukovych told reporters in Brussels after talks with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and NATO ambassadors. "We have to convince society."

The prime minister, who has said he personally opposes NATO membership, cited insufficient popular support for the step. A recent survey found that 60 percent of Ukrainians are against membership in the alliance, significantly more than support the prime minister and his coalition partners.

Making Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, part of the alliance is a cherished goal of Yanukovych's rival, President Viktor Yushchenko.

In late 2004, the two men competed in a presidential election. Yanukovych, Russia's favored candidate, was initially declared the winner, triggering a street revolt and a new vote that swept Yushchenko into office.

Yushchenko set the country on a firmly pro-Western course, setting off alarm bells in Moscow and the Russian-speaking parts of his own country with a promise to quickly push for Ukraine's membership in the Western military alliance.

Yushchenko had expressed hope that the country could join as soon as 2008, and the issue was scheduled to be discussed at a NATO summit in November.

But the coalition that backed him disintegrated last September, and after parliamentary elections earlier this year, Yanukovych, whose party won a plurality of votes, resurrected himself on the back of his rivals' infighting. He became prime minister in July.

American officials have been enthusiastic about Ukraine's potential membership in NATO. But they have become increasingly worried about the anemic support for the move within the country, Western diplomats said in recent interviews. The prospect of Ukraine joining the alliance is also anathema to the Kremlin and the vast majority of Russians, who regard it as an attempt to encircle and isolate their country.

Yanukovych stressed Thursday that he was not turning his back on the West. "For the time being, we are looking at enlargement of our cooperation with NATO," rather than membership, he said. "We should be a reliable bridge between the European Union and Russia."

Yanukovych promised to continue supporting internal reforms that "will bring us in the long term to accession of the European Union."

E.U. officials, facing growing skepticism in the bloc's 25 member nations about any further expansion, were reserved, if not cold, to Ukrainian membership but said a free-trade zone could be negotiated.

E.U. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the union had no plans to offer Ukraine membership "at this moment."

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