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KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovich, a strong candidate for president, said he would keep the country out of NATO if he wins the January 17 election but said he remained committed to taking it into the European mainstream.
Yanukovich, who was denied the presidency in 2004 by mass protests against a rigged vote, also promised to improve the lot of thousands of Russian-speakers whom he said had been alienated by President Viktor Yushchenko's Ukrainianization policies.
Tagged a pro-Moscow stooge in 2004 after he was congratulated prematurely by the Kremlin, Yanukovich is on the comeback trail. The most recent opinion polls indicate he would beat Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a February 7 run-off vote.
Both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich have said that, if elected, they will improve relations with Russia, Ukraine's former Soviet master, which have slid dramatically during Yushchenko's five years in power.
The pro-western Yushchenko, who has had low ratings and is expected to drop out in the first round, has branded his rivals part of a single "Kremlin coalition" that would compromise national interests.
Yanukovich's comments on relations with Moscow sharply contrasted with Yushchenko whom the Kremlin has dubbed anti-Russian.
The 59-year-old Yanukovich, a former prime minister, told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda Ukraina that he would keep Ukraine out of military blocs, including the NATO alliance, membership of which has been one of Yushchenko's goals.
"Ukraine, quite simply, has been and will be a state outside any blocs ... We will not aspire to enter either NATO or the ODKB," he said, referring to the Russian-dominated Collective Security Pact that brings together some ex-Soviet allies.
But he said he would consider Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's call for a new European collective security system.
The war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 over the rebel region of South Ossetia showed that Ukraine had a role to play as a peacekeeper without taking sides, he said.
Yushchenko openly took the side of Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili in the conflict.
But Yanukovich was careful to say that Ukraine remained committed to joining mainstream Europe one day and would seek to improve its eligibility for European Union membership by raising living standards and reforming its economy.
"We will follow a pragmatic and balanced foreign policy. We will continue to develop the process of Euro-integration. But its basis will be the modernization and transformation of Ukraine internally," he said.
Returning to a political hobby horse -- the issue of Russian-language rights -- Yanukovich said he would act to end what he described as Yushchenko's "policy of discrimination" against Ukraine's huge Russian-speaking population.
Ethnic Russians make up 17 per cent of Ukraine's 46 million people and Russian is widely spoken in the country. Yanukovich, from the Russian-speaking east, often seeks to exploit resentment among Russian-speakers at the steady encroachment of Ukrainian, the state language, in official life.
Echoing a reproach made last August by Russia's Medvedev against Yushchenko, Yanukovich said "forced Ukrainianisation" in the education field had led to tension in Russian-speaking regions in the east and south.
He said he would seek to pass laws to end discrimination but gave no concrete details. The constitution provides for the defense of the rights of Russian-speakers to continue speaking their language.
Tymoshenko and Yanukovich on Thursday attended Orthodox Christmas services in the capital Kiev. Yushchenko, a devout Orthodox believer, celebrated Christmas with his family in the Carpathian mountains where he is on holiday.
Editing by Janet Lawrence