Thu, Jan 27, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Ukraine's Yushchenko calls for EU membership talks

AP , STRASBOURG, FRANCE

Members of the Ukrainian community of Strasbourg greet Ukraine's new President Viktor Yushchenko, right, on his arrival at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Tuesday. Yushchenko told Europe's top human rights body on Tuesday that his nation would push through democratic reforms to prepare itself to apply for membership in the EU.

PHOTO: AP

Ukrainian President Viktor Yush-chenko called on the EU to commit by 2007 to membership talks for his country.

The call increases pressure on Brussels to embrace Ukraine at a time of little appetite among Europeans for further expansion into poorer parts of the continent. It could also raise concerns in Moscow that Russia's influence over the former Soviet republic might evaporate.

"We have a three-year action plan. We would like it to end in 2007 with a concrete commitment," Yushchenko said on Tuesday shortly before leaving for Kiev, following a speech at the Council of Europe, the continent's top human-rights body.

"At the end of the plan we would start accession negotiations," he added. "It would give us a prospect, a vision for Ukraine."

Yushchenko, who took office on Sunday following a bitterly disputed presidential election campaign that riveted much of the world, will address the European Parliament in Brussels today.

EU foreign ministers are expected to review relations with Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels next week. An immediate goal for Yushchenko is EU recognition of Ukraine as a market economy and backing for its entry in the WTO this year.

EU officials have cautioned that Ukraine -- like other potential applicants -- could face a long wait before actually joining the EU. Earlier on Tuesday, the European Commission gave no firm commitments, proposing more cooperation on trade, immigration, security and foreign relations.

Yushchenko's comments on Tuesday were a clear indication that he wants more -- full membership in the prosperous 25-nation bloc, as well as in NATO.

The reformist leader's overtures to the West have alarmed the Kremlin, which openly backed his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, in the election campaign.

Ukraine is strategically important to Moscow, which sees the country as a buffer zone between Russia and the expanded EU and NATO, as well as a major transit route for its oil and gas exports.

In a symbolic gesture aimed at soothing those ties, Yushchenko traveled to Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday on his first foreign trip as president. By moving on quickly to Strasbourg and Brussels, Yushchenko was signaling the start of a delicate balancing act he is likely to follow in coming years.

Even in Strasbourg, Yushchenko stressed that he wants a "strategic relationship" with Russia, telling the European officials: "We have our eternal neighbor Russia with a huge market. Not understanding this market would be a huge mistake."

Also on Tuesday, Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili -- who also favors a pro-Western course -- opened an art exhibit entitled "Rose Revolution of Georgia and Orange Revolution of Ukraine."

Like Yushchenko, Saakashvili came to power amid mass demonstrations against a fraudulent vote count that would have awarded elections to his Kremlin-backed opponent.

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