Kyiv, 20 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Soon after Ukraine became independent in 1991, it declared a desire to join the European Union.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, scheduled to leave office in October, made entry into the EU and NATO foreign policy priorities during his second term in office.
However, Ukraine has never got close to membership and has repeatedly been told by the EU it has fallen short of the political and economic criteria necessary to join.
Much of that has been the fault of the Ukrainian government for failing to deal with problems such as corruption, media repression, and an arbitrary judiciary.
Ukraine's hopes for a timetable for EU entry and for enhanced economic relations by being granted "market status" have been repeatedly dashed.
That seemed to be emphasized this year when 10 new members joined the EU, seven from former communist territories. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, like Ukraine, had also been in the USSR.
Ukraine has never gotten close to EU or NATO membership and has repeatedly been told by the EU it has fallen short of the political and economic criteria necessary to join.
Polish European Parliament member Josef Pionira said the new EU members from the former communist bloc share Ukraine's concerns.
"The new members, the new states of the European Parliament and European institutions, we are very active about Ukraine and other east European countries," Pionira said. "There is still a very strong friendship between us. We have our common history, we were in the same totalitarian camp. Now, [some] of us are in the European Union, others still in different parts of Europe. It would be a tragedy if we will allow a new 'Iron Curtain' to go up."
The EU has offered Ukraine membership of its European Neighborhood Policy designed to foster good relations and deepen economic ties with countries on the edge of the EU.
But Ukraine felt demeaned by being put in the same "neighborhood" category as countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Kuchma seemed so exasperated that he signaled that Ukraine would, without entirely turning its back on Western Europe, concentrate on developing a Russian-led common market called the Single Economic Space (SES) supposed to embrace Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Kuchma's favored successor for the presidency, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, is pro-Russian and an enthusiastic proponent of the SES.
His main rival in presidential elections on 31 October is Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the largest opposition faction, who is pro-Western and advocates EU and NATO membership.
Recently Kuchma seems to have changed his mind again about the EU and says he now wants his country to join up in the first phase of countries cooperating with the EU under the "neighborhood" policy.
Last week, a delegation from the EU parliament led by the European Parliament's deputy president, Janusz Onyskewiecz, visited Ukraine for talks with Yanukovych and the Ukrainian parliament's committee on European integration, chaired by former Foreign Minister Tarasiuk.
Onysewiecz stressed Ukraine is not being forgotten. But he said Ukraine is sending "mixed signals" to Brussels and needs to decide where its future lies.
"The problem is that if a country wants to join the European Union this is one direction," Onysewiecz said. "The other direction is an attempt to be part of a process of integration centered around four countries, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Well, I would say the situation is like this: a woman can be pregnant by one man, not two, at the same time."
Onyskewiecz said Ukraine was probably close to meeting some of the EU's criteria in such things as democracy, human rights, and respect for minorities. Ukraine's biggest failure, he said, has been on matching EU economic standards and slowness in market reforms.
Onyskewiecz said Yanukovych had told him that the European orientation of Ukrainian policy has not been changed. But the deputy president of the European Parliament said he was disappointed that Yanukovych had not said he wanted to vigorously pursue EU membership.
Onyskewiecz said the conduct of the forthcoming elections would profoundly affect Ukraine's EU prospects. The EU has issued a number of statements voicing concern that the election campaign is being conducted unfairly by the Yanukovych and government side.
Ukrainian parliamentarian Tarasiuk said he sees no prospects for Ukraine's membership of the EU if the elections are crooked or if Ukraine joins the Russia-led common market.
"Another alternative for relations between Ukraine and the European Union is the prospect of membership offered likely because of positive changes in Ukrainian politics and economy," Tarasiuk said. "That can probably only be achieved by fair elections and a change in the Ukrainian system of government."
Onyskiewicz said the EU was not backing any candidate in the election. However, he said, "In case of the electoral success of Mr. Yushchenko, the situation will be rather clear about the strategic orientation of Ukrainian foreign policy. In case of the electoral success of his main rival, Mr. Yanukovych, the orientation of Ukrainian policy is not that clear although we do hope that it will also be toward Europe."
Some EU diplomats have previously warned Ukraine's "neighborhood status" could be at risk if there are serious election infringements.