Europe, Headlines, North America

UKRAINE: Flirting with NATO Under Russian Eyes

Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Mar 13 2007 (IPS) - Western-leaning elites in this nominally neutral country would like to see Ukraine join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) despite strong popular opposition.

“Public opinion is rather negative about NATO, moreover in the last four or five years the situation has worsened for supporters of the organisation,” Aleksey Tolpygo, an expert from the Kiev Centre of Political Studies and Conflictology told IPS.

NATO and Kiev already cooperate in a wide variety of sectors in the framework of a Ukraine-NATO action plan, and last year NATO launched an “intensified dialogue” with Ukraine, one of the steps required for eventually joining the organisation.

The United States favours Ukraine’s move to NATO, but Russia, Ukraine’s most important economic and energy partner, strongly opposes it.

Well aware of this, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, whose electorate is mostly ethnic Russian, is after a compromise.

“Yanukovich wants to please his voters, but also the USA and western countries on the one hand, and Russia on the other, so he is in a difficult position,” Tolpygo told IPS.

But pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko rejects “a policy of uncertainty” and wants a dialogue with NATO supporting the expansion of military and civilian training programmes in NATO and U.S. educational institutions.

The President has nevertheless advocated taking into account Russian sensitivities. “We understand that Ukraine’s decision to integrate into the European defence bloc requires clarity in Russian-Ukrainian relations,” he told journalists.

Ukrainian officials from different ideological backgrounds have in general minimised the importance of recent Russia-U.S. tensions over the possible set up of a U.S. missile defence system in Eastern Europe, denying the revival of a cold war atmosphere.

But Yushchenko, who has pointed out also that Russia cooperates with NATO, is convinced that in view of its geopolitical position, Ukraine’s safety can only be guaranteed by a new system of European security which, in his view, NATO represents.

The President also believes that only with NATO’s assistance can Ukraine modernise its outdated army and cut military spending.

Ukrainian defence minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, a presidential appointee, has also publicly supported Ukraine’s ongoing efforts to bring its armed forces in line with NATO standards, adding that a decision on membership could come by 2009.

But over the last months Ukraine has witnessed a tug-of-war between the President and the Prime Minister over who has the last word on Ukraine’s foreign policy, each hiding behind his own interpretation of the country’s constitution.

Even though a recent constitutional reform made the legislative branch considerably more powerful than the President, Yushchenko retains the right to veto government-proposed bills.

Whereas Yushchenko is unconditionally for membership, the Prime Minister favours cooperation with NATO but that membership should be put to referendum later.

“Yanukovich said it is not the time for a referendum because the result would be quite obvious,” Tolpygo told IPS. “Recent polls suggest 64 percent of the population is against NATO membership whereas only 19 percent favour it.”

Moreover the Communists, who are part of the ruling coalition, are threatening to withdraw from it if the government fails to deliver on pre-electoral promises, among them the holding of a referendum on NATO membership.

The Communists believe membership in inter-state associations should be decided by national referenda, but only the President has the power to call one.

Communist Party activists, together with Orthodox and pro-Russian organisations, plan to hold an unofficial referendum on NATO membership in Kiev Mar. 25. Similar events have been held in the past in Crimea, were 99 percent of voters expressed opposition to joining NATO.

The events were dismissed by Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission as political actions lacking any legally binding consequences.

Nevertheless, Yanukovich has proven relatively accommodating towards Yushchenko’s views. An awareness campaign on NATO worth a million dollars is already underway to inform Ukraine’s population on the organisation’s goals.

Even before the ‘orange revolution’ November 2004-January 2005, an event which for many observers marked a decisive shift in Ukraine’s foreign policy towards the West, then president Leonid Kuchma tried to strike a balance between the United States and Russia.

In 2004, when relations with Russia were more privileged, Ukraine had the fifth largest contingent in the U.S.-lead war on Iraq, contributing with 2,000 soldiers.

This was balanced by Russia’s military presence in the Crimean peninsula, as stipulated by a bilateral agreement which allows Moscow to keep its naval fleet in Ukrainian territory until 2017.

The government claims the fleet’s presence brings economic benefits to Ukraine, and a few months ago the possibility of extending the agreement was raised by state officials.

But even if Atlanticist defence minister Hrytsenko does not regard the Russian base as an obstacle to Kiev’s NATO bid, like-minded politicians are pressing hard for Russia’s definitive departure in 2017.

Ukraine and Russia have failed to resolve a number of disputes over the status of the base, differing on the interpretation of existing agreements. This has however not prevented the two countries from engaging in occasional joint military exercises.

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