BRUSSELS, Sept. 14 â€“ Ukraine will probably postpone its accession to NATO in order to prevent a worsening of relations with Russia that would otherwise be inevitable, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said Thursday.
Yanukovych, who made the comment after talks with NATO officials in Brussels, suggested Ukraine will not seek this year to join the Membership Action Plan, a program preceding accession.
â€śWe should not set off our relations with NATO against the policy of good neighborhood with Russia,â€ť Yanukovych said at a press conference. â€śSuch policy would be comfortable not only for the government, but also for the people.â€ť
This is the second time over the past month that Yanukovych has pledged to postpone NATO accession, directly challenging President Viktor Yushchenko, who believes Ukraine should join the alliance as soon as possible.
Yushchenko has been pushing for Ukraine to join the Membership Action Plan in November, a move that could lead for the country joining NATO as soon as in 2008. The application to join the plan must be signed by either the president or the prime minister.
Yanukovych controls the largest group in Parliament and its support for the plan would be instrumental, analysts said.
Yanukovychâ€™s apparent refusal to join the plan this year comes amid difficult and extremely important talks with Russia over natural gas supplies and prices.
Ukraine faces a shortage of gas supplies of up to 8 billion cubic meters this year, or up to 10% of the countryâ€™s annual demand, and Russia is the only source that can supply this amount.
Russia recently purchased most of the available gas from Turkmenistan, the second-largest producer of gas in the former Soviet Union, and suggested it could deliver the required volume of gas to Ukraine.
But talks over supplies and prices have been making little progress over the past two weeks as Russia has been apparently seeking concessions from Kiev, analysts said.
Russia, positioning itself as an emerging global power, has been especially irritated by Ukraineâ€™s active push to join NATO, an alliance that Moscow views as a military threat.
At one point earlier this year, Russian Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin suggested a less pro-Western policy could help Ukraine secure a better deal as far as natural gas supplies are concerned.
â€śWe should not make policy that creates an impasse for Russia in its relations with NATO and the European Union,â€ť Yanukovych said. â€śWhatâ€™s needed from Ukraine is to build a reliable bridge.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, which had depicted NATO as a military aggressor.
Yanukovych cited insufficient public support in Ukraine to back his decision to postpone the accession, but said cooperation with the alliance will continue.
â€śJoining the Membership Action Plan is a matter of time,â€ť Yanukovych said. â€śToday, there is no support for this move from society.â€ť (tl/ez)