Ukraine parliament ditches NATO membership goal
Ukraine's parliament Thursday passed in a first reading a bill formally establishing the country's non-aligned status, ditching former ambitions to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The bill is the vision of Ukraine's new President Viktor Yanukovych, who after winning office on pledges to improve ties with Russia said the aim of his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko to join NATO was no longer on the agenda.
It was approved by a majority of 253 deputies in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada.
"Ukraine's president proposes to remove from the agenda an issue that divides society," Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said as he presented the bill to deputies.
"There is no doubt that the world around us will perceive such a choice with relief and understanding," Azarov told the deputies.
"Ukraine will be an understandable, predictable and reliable state both for its citizens and the whole world."
Ukraine is a deeply divided country, with the Ukrainian-speaking, nationalist west eyeing close ties with Europe and the country's Russian-speaking industrial east and south supporting tighter ties to Russia.
Under Yushchenko, who wanted to take Ukraine into NATO, relations with Moscow became so strained the Kremlin refused to speak to him.
Russia has repeatedly said the Western military bloc was harking back to the Soviet era and threatening Russian interests by expanding eastward.
NATO has said Ukraine could join the alliance one day, even though it refused to put the country on a fast-track to membership.
According to the bill, a copy of which was published on the parliament's website, Ukraine will not participate in various military blocs but will continue "constructive cooperation with NATO and other military and political blocs on all issues that are of mutual interests."
Obtaining EU membership remains on the table, the bill said.
The country will also seek to promote a new system of European collective security, an obvious nod to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's ambitious proposal for a new security treaty in Europe that has so far received lukewarm support.
On a visit to Kiev last month Medvedev invited Ukraine to join the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), often seen as a rival to the Western alliance.
But Kiev has so far showed no enthusiasm to join that organization either.
During the visit the two leaders however adopted a joint security statement calling for the creation of a "common security partnership" that observers traditionally see as a covert criticism of NATO.
The final reading of the bill is expected next week and its text is not expected to change substantially.
Yanukovych and Medvedev stunned observers in April when they signed an agreement prolonging the stay of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine for another quarter century in exchange for over 40 billion dollars in gas subsidies, a deal that infuriated Ukrainian nationalists.
© 2010 AFP