Ukraine Defence Minister Criticises Premier Yanukovich On NATO

KIEV, Ukraine -- The first obvious cracks in Ukraine's unwieldy four- party ruling coalition were visible on Friday after the country's defence minister publicly attacked his boss over policy towards NATO.

Anatoly Hritsenko

Anatoly Hritsenko described as 'mistaken' comments made in Brussels on Thursday by Ukraine Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who had told officials Ukraine 'was not prepared to move forward towards NATO accession at the present.'

Yanukovich's remarks touched off a firestorm of domestic criticism. Hritsenko was the first member of the Yanukovich government to attack the Prime Minister's comments.

Ukraine is prepared to move forward 'both in legal and practical terms,' Hritsenko said. 'His (Yanokovich's) statements are unfounded.'

Yanukovich's government was stitched together in late August after months of failed coalition talks. Yanukovich leads the wing of the coalition opposing early Ukrainian membership in NATO, and is a supporter of closer Ukrainian relations with Russia.

A defence minister during the previous government, Hritsenko has supported a systematic movement of Ukraine closer to NATO as a step towards membership in the European Union - an organization almost all Ukrainians want their country to join.

Ukraine's military has cooperated with NATO in joint training exercises and in Balkan peacekeeping since the mid-1990s.

Hritsenko called the Yanukovich government's failure to endorse a formal start to Ukrainian effort to actually join the organization 'truly unfortunate.'

Most of the first steps rejected by Yanukovich were measures aimed at moving Ukraine's military closer to NATO standards, he said.

Hritsenko declared his intention to go effectively over Yanukovich's head and to apply directly to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, in an attempt to get the NATO accession project restarted.

'You'll not live long enough to see that,' Hritsenko responded, when asked if he intended to resign his portfolio over the issue.

Hritsenko's allies on Thursday accused Yanukovich of reneging on the terms of the government coalition agreement, which endorses continued Ukrainian efforts to tighten relations with NATO, but no accession attempt before a national referendum on the matter.

Source: Deutsche Presse-Agentur