- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008

KIEV | President Viktor Yushchenko on Tuesday accused Russia of trying to destabilize Ukraine by encouraging separatists in the Crimea, as fears grow about Russia’s willingness to throw its weight around the former Soviet Union.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Yushchenko sought to tamp down criticism of his leadership in Ukraine after the collapse of his pro-Western coalition raised the possibility of a third parliamentary election in as many years.

Russia’s war with Georgia last month rattled Mr. Yushchenko’s pro-Western government, which like Georgia has pushed for membership in NATO and the European Union. Many Ukrainians wonder whether Ukraine will be the next victim of Russia’s drive to stop NATO’s expansion to its borders.

Many fear Moscow could lay claim to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that once belonged to Russia and is now home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. More than half its residents are ethnic Russians.

Mr. Yushchenko said Russia was interested in creating “internal instability” in parts of Ukraine.

He said Ukraine was too big and strong to give in to threats from Russia or a repeat of the war in Georgia, which resulted in Russia invading the country, routing its military and occupying large swaths of its territory. Moscow has recognized two breakaway Georgian regions as independent nations.

Russia has said it wants to continue leasing the Sevastopol naval base in the Crimea from Ukraine after the current agreement expires in 2017. Mr. Yushchenko said the war with Georgia — with Russian warships based at Sevastopol participating — showed again that the Russian navy must leave Crimea.

Ukrainian officials also have accused Moscow of stirring up trouble with claims that the Crimea belongs to Russia and purportedly by giving Russian passports to thousands of Crimeans to stoke separatist sentiments.

Mr. Yushchenko, who has made NATO membership the central theme of his four-year presidency, promised that Ukraine would eventually join the Western alliance, and he vowed to overcome domestic resistance to NATO.

Mr. Yushchenko spoke hours after his coalition was declared dead, starting a 30-day countdown for lawmakers to either form a new alliance or call elections.

Mr. Yushchenko said the collapse did not threaten the country’s tumultuous democracy. He accused coalition partner Yulia Tymoshenko - the prime minister who was his ally in the 2004 Orange Revolution - of betraying national interests and acting selfishly.

The alliance between the two leaders’ parties disintegrated amid infighting ahead of the 2010 presidential election, in which both expect to compete.

Mr. Yushchenko’s allies pulled out of the coalition after Mrs. Tymoshenko sided with opposition lawmakers to curtail presidential powers. Mr. Yushchenko again accused Mrs. Tymoshenko of acting on the Kremlin’s behalf by failing to condemn the war in Georgia and of seeking to retain power at all costs ahead of the vote.

Analysts believe that the next coalition may include the Russia-friendly Party of Regions and be more responsive to Moscow’s demands.

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