EU Welcomes Ukrainian PM's Pledge To Seek Closer Ties

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union appeared to push any misgivings about Ukraine's new prime minister into the background Thursday and gave a warm welcome to Viktor Yanukovych's pledge to reform the economy and fight corruption.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych answers reporters' questions at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels September 21, 2006.

"I believe we are going to have a very good working relationship," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told Yanukovych as the Ukrainian wrapped up his second visit to EU headquarters in eight days.

Yanukovych has enjoyed a political rebirth this year in elections that brought him to power less than two years after his fraud-marred attempt to win the Ukrainian presidency in 2004 sparked the Orange Revolution protests.

Back then, many in the west viewed the Russian-supported Yanukovych with suspicion and welcomed his ultimate defeat by his pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko.

Now he's back at the head of a coalition government, Yanukovych says he wants Ukraine to be a bridge between Russia and the EU. Ukraine, he says, seeks closer political cooperation with the EU, a free-trade zone and eventual membership of the Union.

While the EU views Ukraine's membership as a step too far in its eastward expansion, it is encouraged by Yanukovych's pro-Western statements.

Asked by a reporter to assess the potential for cooperation with Yanukovych after their first meeting, Barroso gave an upbeat reply.

"What matters is not if it's party A or party B, or personality A or personality B. What is important is the commitment to our common values of democracy, rule of law and open economies," he said. "I'm very happy that the new government has stated the commitment of Ukraine to political and economic reform and its attachment to European values."

Yanukovych restated that EU membership remains a "strategic goal" for Ukraine, but acknowledged the former-Soviet republic of 47 million faces a "difficult road" to gain membership. Barroso said the EU would support economic and political reforms designed to bring Ukraine closer to the EU and improve living standards.

He also gave the EU's backing for Ukraine's bid to join the World Trade Organization, a step Yanukovych hopes will lead to the negotiation of a free trade zone with the 25-nation bloc.

The EU has no plans to offer Kiev membership and instead suggests an agreement to cement closer economic and political ties, including free trade. "Our objective is to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union," Barroso said.

Yanukovych said Ukraine had no plans to sign up to a customs union with Russia - a move which the EU has warned would hurt its chances of setting up a free trade zone with the European Union.

Although he has maintained a pro-EU line, Yanukovych upset President Yushchenko and some ministers in his own government last week when he told NATO that Ukraine was putting its bid to join the Western military alliance on hold because of widespread public opposition in the country.

Pressed about NATO membership again, Yanukovych said his position had the support of parliament and repeated that joining the alliance would have to be submitted to a referendum in Ukraine.

Source: AP