Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko paid two visits to the United States at the end of September. Among the main goals of his visits was to confirm Ukraine’s hope to secure an Action Plan for NATO Membership (MAP) ahead of the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting scheduled for December. Yushchenko failed to secure a MAP for Ukraine at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, and he will probably fail again. Ukraine has hardly moved any closer toward this goal since April.
Speaking in an interview ahead of his first visit, Yushchenko expressed his disappointment at not receiving a MAP thus far. “Everyone needs to understand that everything Ukraine needed to do to obtain a positive answer [on NATO], if we speak openly and honestly, it has done that,” he said. “We need to get a signal from the alliance itself that we are respected, that we are valued,” Yushchenko added (The Washington Times, September 18).
Meeting with Jewish leaders in New York, Yushchenko claimed that Ukraine had fulfilled all conditions for NATO’s MAP. “I do not know what else my country should do to put an end to discussions on this issue,” he said. Yushchenko urged NATO to “expand the area of security further east” in the wake of the Russia-Georgia conflict.
The lack of popular support for NATO membership has been one of the strongest arguments in Europe against a MAP for Ukraine, especially in France and Germany. Yushchenko admitted that this was a problem as there “have been discussions in Ukrainian society”; but he promised that Ukraine would hold a referendum on NATO entry in due course, as the pro-Russian opposition demanded. Yushchenko argued that “there are increasingly more supporters of the membership each month, and increasingly fewer opponents” (UNIAN, September 23).
The most recent opinion polls have indicated that Yushchenko was not altogether wrong about popular support. A poll by the Sotsiovymir pollster revealed that popular support for NATO membership grew by some 10 percent over the past several months to 31 percent in early September (UNIAN, September 19). This was a very high figure for Ukraine, where popular support for NATO entry usually hovered around 20 to 25 percent.
Figures obtained by a different, arguably more pro-Russian, pollster, Sofia, were less positive, but they confirmed the trend. According to Sofia, which conducted its poll from September 9 to 17, popular support for NATO membership grew to 23.7 percent from 21.4 percent in May (Interfax, September 24).
The positive popular opinion trend may be temporary, prompted by Russia’s actions in Georgia. Ukraine has hardly made any progress in most other respects since the Bucharest NATO summit. Internationally, Russia’s opposition remains one of the main obstacles to Ukraine’s MAP, and Yushchenko has done little to assuage Russia’s misapprehension. His reaction to the events in Georgia, for example, was viewed in Moscow as overly hostile (see EDM, August 15).
Most recently Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian ultranationalist leader who often acts as the Kremlin’s unofficial spokesman, warned that “if someone attempts to drag Ukraine into NATO and the people start to protest against this and they are harassed…then Russia will have the right to defend its citizens in Ukraine.” He added that “it would be ideal for both Georgia and Ukraine to remain neutral” (Ukraina TV, September 22).
Domestically, Yushchenko’s pro-NATO efforts have failed. His Our Ukraine party, which is backed by hardly more than 10 to 14 percent of Ukrainians, has been the only consistent supporter of a MAP and NATO membership among the leading parties. The party of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been less enthusiastic about NATO, as Tymoshenko apparently fears that a decisively pro-NATO course would prompt Russia to charge Ukraine more for gas. If the opposition Party of Regions, which has always been wary of NATO, emerges winner in the current political turmoil prompted by the demise of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko coalition (see EDM, September 17), domestic support for NATO will be even weaker.
Yushchenko’s NATO awareness campaign has been a flop. Several tenders to select a PR firm to organize pro-NATO events in two-thirds of Ukrainian towns have produced no result, as the government allotted a very small sum for this, the equivalent of $100,000, said the acting head of the Foreign Ministry’s NATO information department, Vladyslava Bondarenko. So far the Tymoshenko government has spent just one third of the dismal $2 million earmarked in the state budget for advertising NATO, a Ukrainian business daily reported (Delo, September 30).
Finally, the Ukrainian army may not be quite up to NATO standards. Yushchenko recalled at a recent meeting of his National Security and Defense Council that Ukraine spends the least of all CIS countries on its army’s needs, only 1 percent of GDP. “Experts say that when the critical level of funding is 1 percent, that is when the armed forces start to get ruined,” he said. According to Yushchenko, only 21 of Ukraine’s 112 fighters and only four of its 26 warships are fully operational (UT1, September 26).