- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

KIEV — Domestic opposition to Ukraine’s bid for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is stronger than at any time since President Viktor Yushchenko took office last year, highlighted by protests that forced cancellation of a NATO military exercise this month.

The protests also raised questions in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels about Ukraine’s readiness to join the alliance, but most specialists here think Kiev will seek membership.

“It’s as they say: ‘The dog may bark, but the caravan moves on,’” said Nikolay Sungurovskiy, chief military specialist at the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies. “In six months, this [cancellation] will be forgotten.”

NATO membership has become one of the country’s touchiest topics since Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. Mr. Yushchenko, who took office last year, ran on a platform of integrating Ukraine with the West by joining the European Union and NATO, and has remained steadfast in his goal.

Others, however, do not share his view. The pro-Russian opposition questions the president’s European aspirations and seeks a national referendum on the issue. The public is deeply divided over membership.

Tensions exploded in late May when NATO military exercises planned for last week were suspended because of protests on the Crimean Peninsula.

Protest in Crimea

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets after a U.S. Navy ship arrived at the port in Feodosia. It carried equipment intended to help upgrade a Ukrainian military training facility participating in the exercises.

Protesters camped in the streets and vowed not to move until the ship, which carried U.S. Marine reservists, left. Protests spread to other cities; by mid-June, the reservists were on their way home and the exercise, Sea Breeze 2006, was called off. Most of the troops that were to have taken part came from the United States and Britain.

It is widely believed that the pro-Russia Party of Regions was behind the Crimean protests and that more anti-NATO campaigns are being planned. Viktor Yanukovych, the former prime minister who lost the presidential election of December 2004 to Mr. Yushchenko, leads the party.

“It’s dirty politics,” said Mr. Sungurovskiy. Like many here, he said the opposition is using reluctance to joining NATO to further its political ambitions.

Indeed, it was Mr. Yanukovych who signed many documents supporting NATO membership when he was prime minister. Many of his supporters don’t know this, and it is an important point that the Ukrainian press overlooks.

“You tell them that it was under Yanukovych that this started, and they look at you with wide eyes,” said Mr. Sungurovskiy.

News outlets here and the current Ukrainian leadership have failed to explain to the public that Russia itself has signed cooperative agreements with NATO.

“Russia is moving at a faster tempo [toward NATO integration], but blames Ukraine for wanting to go into NATO,” said Mr. Sungurovskiy. “Russia has signed even more agreements, but people don’t know this.”

Many of the Crimean protesters were elderly people who grew up during the Soviet era at a time when NATO was considered the enemy. Many are ethnic Russians.

Comments don’t help

Since the debacle, however, comments by Western leaders haven’t helped matters.

The NATO general secretary, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, told a Polish newspaper in an interview published last weekend that the alliance wouldn’t offer Ukraine membership when it holds its annual meeting this fall in Riga, Latvia.

This statement touched off a firestorm, especially in the Russian press, which treated the comment as a final word on Ukraine’s membership status. The press virtually ignored Mr. de Hoop Scheffer’s other statement that nations hoping to become NATO members, including Ukraine, Georgia, and Balkan states, would be given “positive” signals during the meeting.

In response to the NATO general secretary’s comments, Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesman Vasyl Filipchuk told journalists last Tuesday that Ukraine had not anticipated an invitation to join NATO at the Riga meeting.

It is not certain, however, if Ukraine will get the go-ahead to enter NATO’s Membership Action Plan as originally anticipated.

The United States also has made the alliance a more difficult sell in Ukraine.

David J. Kramer, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said at a recent conference in Washington that disruption of the Crimean exercises cast doubt on Kiev’s ability to follow through on its promises.

Privately, however, some advisers, including some from the West, had warned Washington that given Ukraine’s political climate, the joint military exercises could cause problems. Those warnings were ignored, the insiders said.

‘Balancing act’

“Yushchenko is in a difficult position, having to do this balancing act,” said Marta Kolomayets, director of programs for the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group that has worked in Ukraine for 15 years. “He, though, understands the importance of nurturing democracy as he strives to make Ukraine a European state.”

Mr. Yushchenko is not without blame, analysts said. His team made a poor job of talking about the benefits of NATO membership and explaining to the public exactly what the organization is. That left the door open for the opposition to play politics and push membership to the top of the agenda.

Political infighting between the president’s allies hasn’t helped matters, either. It took nearly three months for the parties that spearheaded the Orange Revolution to form a coalition after their collective victory in parliamentary elections held in March.

Coalition partners now have 30 days to create a government, but analysts still worry this will give the opposition more time to play the anti-NATO card.

Analysts said there is little doubt that the political wrangling has weakened Ukraine’s image abroad. Kiev missed out on a highly anticipated trip from President Bush in June because the coalition was not formed.

Still, “Ukraine is 85 percent ready to become a NATO member,” Mr. Sungurovskiy, the analyst, said. The military is in the hands of civilians, costs have been streamlined and ultimately Ukraine has gained valuable training for its troops after cooperating with NATO for more than a decade.

Ukraine has been an active participant in Partnership for Peace exercises since 1994. Its peacekeeping troops work closely with the U.S. and other NATO countries in Kosovo, and Ukraine sent forces to Iraq after the military incursion there.

And the United States hasn’t closed the door on future exercises.

“We hope to move forward with the exercise, providing the Ukrainian government expresses a willingness to conduct Sea Breeze 2006 and the Rada (Ukrainian parliament) passes the relevant legislation,” Brent Byers, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kiev, said in a statement to the press after the Marines had left the Crimea.

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