World News

Ukraine drops NATO membership aim

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine Thursday formally buried pursuit of NATO membership as an aim, its foreign minister declaring the issue had been taken off the policy agenda.

It was the most clear-cut statement by the new leadership of President Viktor Yanukovich that the issue was a dead letter in Ukraine for the conceivable future.

“Ukraine will continue developing its relations with the alliance, but the question of membership is now being removed from the agenda,” the foreign minister, Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

“This corresponds to the way things are today,” he added in comments to a foreign policy coordination meeting.

Yanukovich himself was separately quoted as saying by Interfax in the Western city of Lviv: “Entry into NATO is not realistic for our country today. NATO conditions would require us to have the support of the majority of the population.”

Membership of the U.S.-led military alliance was ardently pursued by the pro-Western ex-president Viktor Yushchenko, despite widespread indifference in the country and lack of encouragement from the alliance itself.

But Yanukovich, who came to power in February and has tilted the ex-Soviet republic back toward Moscow in several areas of policy, has made clear NATO membership was being pushed on to the back burner as an objective.

He has equally told Moscow that Ukraine will stick by its policy of staying out of military blocs. He has not responded to an invitation by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to join the Russia-led CSTO security grouping.

Interfax quoted Gryshchenko as saying that NATO membership did not have the support of the majority of the population and had a “destructive effect” on state policy.

But his words indicated that Ukraine, whose Crimean peninsula is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet on an extended lease until 2042, would continue to take part in military and civil emergency programs with NATO countries.

Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Maria Golovnina