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Ukraine: As Kyiv Pursues NATO Membership, Public Confidence In Alliance Wanes

Ukraine says it wants to join NATO. But even as Kyiv unveils its plan for integration into the military alliance, a new opinion poll shows many Ukrainians have less and less confidence in NATO.

PRAGUE, 24 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Ukrainian government this week made public a plan to deepen coordination with NATO as part of its ambition to join the military alliance.

The NATO-Ukraine Action Plan was approved at the NATO summit in the Czech capital Prague in November but was only unveiled on 22 January. The five-chapter document outlines Ukraine's strategy for meeting NATO criteria on issues like policy, economy, security, defense, information, and law. It also proposes developing joint programs in disarmament, air defense, research, science, and emergency situations.

But a nationwide poll -- conducted in December and published this week -- shows that confidence in NATO has dropped dramatically since a similar survey made last summer after Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma declared his country's intention to join.

The results published show that out of a sample of more than 3,000 Ukrainians, just 28 percent said they trusted the Atlantic alliance -- down 11 percentage points from the poll last summer.

Likewise, 44 percent of respondents said they did not consider NATO a trustworthy organization this time around. Last summer, just 34 percent said they had doubts.

The head of NATO's representative office in Kyiv, Michel Duray, says opinion polls only partially reflect reality and that NATO is not disheartened by the poll: "Polls are like tides in the sea. They can go up, they can go down. So I'm personally convinced that [although] there may have been some problems and misunderstandings, and there maybe still are some misunderstandings between NATO and Ukraine, this does not hamper our decision to go forward and to contribute to the implementation of the recently published action plan."

Duray said another document will appear soon explaining how to implement the objectives outlined in the plan year-by-year: "The next practical step will be the publication of the annual target plan which should occur, hopefully, in a few weeks -- no more than three weeks, I hope -- which describes, indeed, a-l-l the practical steps which are to be undertaken by Ukraine and by NATO and Ukraine [jointly]."

When Kuchma declared in May that Ukraine wanted to join NATO, it was a dramatic departure from the country's previous policy of treading a neutral path between the West and its former colonial master, Russia.

Ukraine has been a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace since 1997, and joint NATO and Ukrainian military maneuvers are conducted frequently in Ukraine. But Kyiv's decision to intensify relations emerged from a growing fear Ukraine was being left behind as many former Soviet bloc countries raced toward membership in not only NATO but the European Union as well.

However, Ukraine has only seen its isolation grow in recent months, as Kuchma has come under fire from Western leaders for his alleged corruption and possible role in the murder of an opposition journalist. The Ukrainian leader was roundly snubbed during November's NATO summit, which he attended despite requests that he not come to Prague.

The United States has also imposed financial sanctions on Ukraine amid claims Kuchma authorized the sale of a sophisticated radar system to Iraq. And earlier this week, Britain and Canada imposed additional sanctions on Ukraine, saying it had not done enough to combat money laundering.

Some of the organizers of the poll on NATO entry say many Ukrainians see the snub against Kuchma at the Prague summit as a snub against Ukraine overall.

This view is seconded by Serhiy Komisarenko, Ukraine's former ambassador to the UN and Britain and current head of the nongovernmental Ukrainian International Institute for Peace and Democracy. He says many Ukrainians feel shunned not only by NATO but by the West overall.

Recent statements by the European Union appearing to dismiss Ukraine's chance of joining the bloc, Komisarenko says, have only contributed to that feeling of growing isolation: "Many Ukrainians are -- I won't call it disappointed, but they objectively see that Western Europe and the United States are turning away from Ukraine. But what's the reason for this? Well that's another question."

Komisarenko says most Ukrainians believe that "prevailing politics" -- that is, the policies of Kuchma and his administration -- are to blame for the country's isolation from the West. He adds the Western stance is understandable, given that Ukraine has consistently failed to honor pledges to introduce the reforms necessary for membership in the EU or NATO.

"Therefore Ukraine, unfortunately -- I repeat, unfortunately -- even though it talks about wanting to be [closer to Western] Europe, it has done everything to show Europe that it is not ready for that process," Komisarenko says.

Commenting on the recent poll, Komisarenko says many people are still locked into Soviet-era prejudices that color their outlook on institutions like NATO: "Different people look at issues in different ways depending on their world outlook and the events that happen in the world. It depends on the extent to which they are tied to the past. The attitude toward NATO, to a large degree, depends on the attitude toward NATO that prevailed during Soviet times."

Komisarenko's theory is supported by survey findings indicating that those Ukrainians most likely to distrust NATO are over 50 and remember the Soviet Union fondly. Geographically, most NATO-doubters in Ukraine are found in areas with large numbers of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers -- Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The most pro-NATO responses came from Western Ukraine, where national consciousness is most firmly entrenched.

Komisarenko says reporting on NATO by Ukrainian mass media is largely negative. He says NATO itself should do more to teach Ukrainians about the alliance and what it can offer Ukraine.

"Unfortunately, I think that NATO publicizes itself too little in Ukraine. Ukrainians still know very little about NATO -- what role it played previously in the world, what it did when the Cold War finished, and what NATO's current plans are," Komisarenko says.

NATO representative Michel Duray says NATO does not want to isolate Ukraine and does not rule out Kyiv's eventual full membership in the alliance if it implements reforms like those in the plan outlined this week.