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Ukraine: Government Faces Uphill Battle In Achieving NATO Aspirations

Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko (RFE/RL) Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko visited the Czech Republic and Slovakia this week to discuss ways of strengthening Ukraine's military cooperation with these two NATO countries. Both Prague and Bratislava assured Hrytsenko that they support Ukraine's NATO bid. But the Ukrainian defense minister was reluctant to speculate on when Ukraine might join the alliance. He appears to be aware that Ukraine's NATO accession depends not only on support from NATO members, but also on the ability of the Ukrainian government to cope with its domestic agenda.

Prague, 15 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Czech Defense Minister Karel Kuehnl said during a joint news conference with Hrytsenko in Prague today that the Czech Republic wants NATO next year to prepare a "realistic" plan for Ukraine's NATO accession.

The Czech defense minister said his country can help Ukraine resolve some of the problems it is encountering on its path toward NATO integration.

"There are three spheres where the Czech Republic can share its experience in the transformation of its armed forces," Kuehnl said. "This is primarily the so-called personnel management; that is, a wide sphere ranging from education to social issues. Furthermore, it is financial-resource management. Finally, we have a common problem of disposing of unnecessary ammunition."

But Ukraine faces a number of hurdles to its NATO accession that Czech expertise might not help overcome.

For example, carrying out the military downsizing required to join NATO by 2008 threatens to strain Ukraine's budget. This is because such massive cuts could mean that the state will have to pay to retrain and find jobs for discharged servicemen.

Ukraine is currently undergoing reforms that will reduce its 280,000-strong military to some 140,000 troops by 2012. It is also restructuring its combat capabilities to comply with NATO standards.

As part of this reform effort, Ukraine last year cut 70,000 military personnel. The military is to be reduced by a further 40,000 servicemen this year, and by 18,000 annually in the coming years.

Some Ukrainian politicians and economists are also worried that Ukrainian NATO accession could ruin or significantly damage the country's military-industrial complex. They argue that the country's defense industries will become obsolete after the military switches to weapons and military technologies used by NATO troops.

Such an outcome could result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in Ukraine and, possibly, a disruption of cooperation ties with Russia's military industries.

But the main obstacle to Ukraine's NATO membership seems to be presented by ordinary Ukrainians. Most still retain the Soviet-era perception that the alliance is a hostile organization, or are unconvinced about the advantages of NATO membership.

According to a poll conducted among 11,000 respondents in May, more than half of all Ukrainians oppose the country's NATO entry, while fewer than one in four support the move.

Hrytsenko said in an interview with RFE/RL that a government trusted by the people can change this perception of NATO among Ukrainians.

Ukraine is currently undergoing reforms that will reduce its 280,000-strong military to some 140,000 troops by 2012.

"First, it is a problem of informing people about what NATO is and what it is not. The government has not yet done this. It can seriously tackle this issue only after the conclusion of the [2006 parliamentary] election campaign, which is not a favorable background for this," Hrytsenko said. "Second, it is a problem of public trust in the government. If the government resolves successfully economic, social, and all other problems, then citizens trust this government and support its foreign-policy course."

Ukraine has more than a decade of experience in dealing with NATO.

In 1994, it became the first post-Soviet country to join the Partnership for Peace. The partnership was a program of security and defense cooperation that NATO offered to nonmembers after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

In 1997, NATO offered Ukraine a "Distinctive Partnership" status that underlined the country's important role in maintaining European stability. A NATO-Ukraine Commission was established to coordinate further development of bilateral relations.

In May 2002, then-President Leonid Kuchma announced Ukraine's goal of achieving NATO membership.

In November 2002, NATO foreign ministers adopted a NATO-Ukraine Action Plan. The plan aims to expand bilateral relations and to support Ukraine's reform efforts toward integration with Euro-Atlantic security structures.

NATO-Ukraine contacts have increased following Viktor Yushchenko's victory in the 2004 presidential election.

President Yushchenko earlier this year visited NATO headquarters in Brussels. There he confirmed that he considers a course toward NATO a strategic political goal, and he urged the alliance to take relations with his country to a "qualitatively new level."

Shortly afterward, NATO and Ukraine launched an "Intensified Dialogue" phase in their relations, which is expected to lead to the opening of direct talks on Ukrainian NATO membership.

However, NATO officials persistently emphasize that the speed of Ukraine's integration will be closely related to the country's pace of implementing political, economic, and military reforms.

In May, President Yushchenko told Ukrainians that he will seek a referendum on the country's NATO and EU membership. Thus, considering the lack of support for NATO accession among the population, the Ukrainian government is facing an uphill task in persuading them that NATO membership is truly beneficial.

(Marianna Dratch from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)

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