Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Ukraine will reject any effort to be used as a pawn in any struggle for influence between Russia and the West, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said yesterday at the end of a two-day visit to Washington.

But Mr. Yanukovych, whom many in Washington fear is tilting away from the pro-Western reform alliance that spearheaded Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, said his four-month-old government will not lobby strongly for membership in NATO in the face of weak popular support for the trans-Atlantic alliance inside Ukraine.

“Nobody is trying to push anyone anywhere” on NATO, Mr. Yanukovych said, speaking through an interpreter to a small group of reporters at a breakfast briefing. “People have to understand the benefits of this or any other security system.”

The prime minister raised fresh doubts about his commitment to NATO when he declined to sign a nonbinding “membership action plan” on a September visit to Brussels. A poll released in Kiev yesterday said that about 75 percent of Ukrainians think Mr. Yanukovych is more likely to protect Russian business interests or those of his home region in eastern Ukraine over the interests of “average Ukrainian citizens.”

President Viktor Yushchenko, the hero of the Orange Revolution, has strongly pushed a pro-NATO and pro-Western foreign-policy line. But he was forced to accept Mr. Yanukovych as prime minister after elections this year gave his defeated rival in the 2004 presidential campaign the biggest single bloc in parliament.

Mr. Yanukovych held low-key talks with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on his visit, his first to the United States since taking office in August. Topics in the talks included Ukraine’s World Trade Organization bid, energy security and domestic reforms in Ukraine.

Mr. Yanukovych told reporters his government was a vast improvement over the faction-ridden team installed by Mr. Yushchenko immediately after the Orange Revolution.

“Beautiful slogans should always be followed by actions,” he said. The new unified government “allows for a foreign and domestic policy where we can be 100 percent sure of implementation.”

But the infighting clearly goes on in Kiev.

Mr. Yushchenko yesterday voided a parliamentary vote to fire Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, a chief architect of his pro-Western foreign agenda. Mr. Yanukovych’s allies hold virtually all of the other Cabinet posts, but Mr. Yushchenko argued the country’s constitution gave him final say on foreign policy.

Mr. Yanukovych declined to criticize recent anti-democratic moves by Russian President Vladimir Putin, noting that Russia is Ukraine’s biggest trading partner and the critical supplier of its energy needs.

“President Putin defends the interests of Russia. The way he does — the Russian people can assess that,” Mr. Yanukovych said.

“The most important thing is that Ukraine should not be allied with Russia against the United States and the European Union or vice versa,” he said. “We are not going to conduct such a policy.”

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