KIEV, Aug. 10 â€“ Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said Thursday that Ukraine will probably postpone the process of joining NATO indefinitely and will use the time to raise awareness among the people about the alliance.
The comment, made in a special statement, suggests that Ukraine, despite earlier expectations, will not seek joining the Membership Action Plan, a program that precedes accession to NATO.
The development would be a turnaround in the foreign policy of President Viktor Yushchenko, who has been pushing for Ukraine to join the plan at a NATO summit in November. Joining the plan this year would mean Ukraine could join NATO in 2008.
â€śBy refraining from immediately submitting the bid to join the Membership Action Plan, we intend to use the time period that opens up for working to ensure a real approach with NATO, to conduct needed reforms,â€ť Yanukovych said. He said the time will also be used â€śto implement recommendations that had been already provided by NATO.â€ť
Yanukovych provided no timeframe of the delay, but said the government would soon start a program to inform the people about NATO during â€śthe next several years.â€ť
The majority of Ukrainians donâ€™t want the country to join NATO, according to opinion polls. But most admit they donâ€™t know much about the alliance except from what had been said by Soviet propaganda that had depicted NATO as a military aggressor.
Ukraineâ€™s foreign policy turnaround away from quick NATO membership would be a major victory for Russia, which still views the alliance as a military threat.
Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, a pro-NATO figure, on Thursday refused to comment on the statement until after he sees Yanukovych. Hrytsenko told Kommersant daily that he hadnâ€™t been aware of any foreign policy change underway.
Meanwhile, Yanukovych issued the statement on a sensitive matter five days ahead of his scheduled visit to Russia, where he plans to hold extremely important talks on preventing natural gas shortages in Ukraine.
Yanukovych will travel to Russia on Aug. 15-16, most likely to Sochi, a Russian resort city on the Black Sea, where Russian President Vladimir Putin spends his summer vacation, people familiar with the situation said. Yanukovych will also hold talks with his Russian counterpart Mikhail Fradkov.
Ukraine, which consumes annually about 76 billion cubic meters of gas, faces a supply gap of about 14 billion cu m this year after Turkmenistan had refused to resume gas deliveries earlier this year.
Turkmenistan said it wanted a major gas price hike for resuming the supplies, but also suggested that a gas pipeline, carrying Turkmen gas to Ukraine via Russia, did not have enough capacity.
The developments come as Putin has admitted earlier this year that Russia should be using its energy dominance in the region as a tool for promoting its foreign policy agenda.
Russia suspended gas supplies to Ukraine in the middle of the winter, on Jan. 1, trying to force the country to accept almost a five-fold increase in gas price. Analysts said the move was apparently aimed at bringing down a pro-Western government and to force the country to change its pro-Western foreign policy.
The Regions Party, a moderate pro-Russian group led by Yanukovych, won the general election on March 26. Yushchenko agreed to nominate Yanukovych for the post of the prime minister on Aug. 4, after Yanukovych had promised to support Yushchenkoâ€™s policy on quick accession to NATO. (tl/ez)