Ukraine's New Premier Heads To Brussels For Talks With EU, NATO

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych heads to Brussels on Wednesday for talks with European Union and NATO officials, a trip under close scrutiny to determine how much the West should expect from a man who was openly backed by the Kremlin.

Viktor Yanukovych (L) and NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (R) in May 2004

What Brussels is likely to find during Yanukovych's visit on Thursday is an increasingly self-confident politician who appears determined not to be taken for granted — either by the West or by Russia.

"The new Ukrainian government sees its task to stop playing the role of beggar, which it has played in negotiations with the EU up until now, and become a strong, self-confident and therefore interesting partner for Brussels," Yanukovych said in setting out his government's agenda this month. He did not mention NATO.

Yanukovych has publicly promised to uphold Ukraine's pro-Western course, and his interest in joining the European Union, with all the financial and political rewards that promises, is not in doubt.

But Yanukovych's ambivalence about NATO, despite his written pledge to make membership a priority, is so pronounced that even Ukraine's defense minister seemed uncertain about how convincing a case Yanukovych could make for Ukraine this week.

"Much will depend on how Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is received by NATO, how convincing he is and whether he keeps his word," Anatoliy Hrytsenko, one of the strongest advocates for Ukraine's NATO membership, said in televised remarks.

Yanukovych's office has said that he is expected to meet with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the European Union's top foreign policy official, Javier Solana, and participate in separate Ukraine-NATO and Ukraine-EU committee meetings.

It's a getting-to-know-you visit, a chance for EU and NATO officials to get reacquainted with the man whose fraud-marred grab for the Ukrainian presidency sparked the 2004 Orange Revolution mass protests. Yanukovych's bid was strongly supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his ultimate defeat by the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko was seen as not only a crushing loss for Yanukovych but also as a humiliation for the Kremlin.

Yanukovych rebounded less than two years later to lead his center-right party to victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and went on to form a governing coalition that includes the Socialist Party and the Communists. He has reached out to Yushchenko, and the president's center-left party is now in talks about joining the coalition; it already has a handful of members serving in Yanukovych's Cabinet.

The European Union is likely to sound out Yanukovych about his interest in joining a Russian-dominated economic union; they've warned that if Ukraine signs up to a customs union with Russia, Kiev could hurt its chances of setting up a free trade zone with the European Union. Yanukovych wants that free trade zone, and he has said he will make that clear.

NATO will be seeking more clarity about Ukraine's position ahead of a major alliance meeting in Latvia in November. Originally, Ukraine was expected to take the first step toward membership at that meeting. Yanukovych has said that will not happen, but Yushchenko has said it is still on the agenda.

Analysts predict that Yanukovych, who has said he doesn't want to get stuck in an "either-or" choice between Moscow and the West, will try to keep his options open, particularly on this first visit.

"He is well-versed at saying the right things," said Ivan Lozowy, president of the Kiev-based Institute of Statehood and Democracy. "But no matter how pleasing he tries to be, he understands that his words and deeds will be closely watched in Moscow."

Source: AP