The Ukrainian government has launched a campaign to make NATO popular in the country in order to secure a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine. The Cabinet of Ministers has approved a plan to increase public awareness of the benefits of NATO membership, and pro-government party activists are touring Ukraine organizing pro-NATO rallies. The leftist and pro-Russian opposition, afraid that a pro-NATO course would complicate relations with Moscow, have been trying to disrupt the campaign.
Probably all Ukrainian governments have been pro-NATO, but NATO has always been unpopular in Ukraine, especially in the Russian-speaking east and south. This is not just due to the decades of Soviet anti-NATO propaganda. NATO is unpopular also because of the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq and the fact that most Ukrainians cannot travel West because of tough visa regulations imposed by the EU and the USA. Consequently, they do not know much about NATO countries. They are also swayed by Moscow’s opposition to NATO enlargement, as family and cultural ties to Russia are strong in Ukraine.
Russia’s opposition to NATO membership and the low domestic support for it were the two main reasons behind Kyiv’s failure to receive a MAP at the NATO summit this past April. President Viktor Yushchenko aims to secure a MAP in December 2008, but he understands that something needs to be done to persuade the most skeptical NATO members such as Germany and France that Ukraine deserves it. Kyiv arguably cannot do much to change Moscow’s position on NATO enlargement, but it can try to change domestic perception of NATO.
A recent public opinion poll on the issue, conducted by the Kyiv-based Sofia think-tank from May 7 to 14, showed that only 21.4 percent of Ukrainians are inclined to support NATO membership, and 53 percent of those polled approved of the April failure to secure a MAP. The poll identified the main reasons for the negative attitude to NATO membership. Most Ukrainians fear that this would spoil relations with Russia (74 percent of those polled), force them to take part in US-led wars (67 percent), exacerbate tension in society (60 percent), prompt more spending on defense (58 percent), and make Ukraine a target for terrorists (58 percent).
On May 28 the Ukrainian government approved a four-year, $6 million public awareness plan aimed at winning majority support among the population for NATO accession. According to the plan, public support for NATO entry should grow to 36 percent by the end of 2008 and further to 43 percent in 2009, 50 percent in 2010, and 55 percent by 2011. The plan provides for a set of measures ranging from establishing a network of NATO information offices across the country to printing posters, calendars and brochures; launching mandatory NATO awareness courses at schools; organizing soccer matches between teams from Ukraine and NATO member states; and inviting DJs from NATO countries to Ukrainian nightclubs.
The nationwide pro-NATO campaign started with an event featuring pop stars in Ukraina Palace in downtown Kyiv, organized by Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine (NU) party on May 30. The NU said that its campaign would last until December, when Ukraine should receive a MAP. Together with other pro-government parties, such as the People’s Party, and the radical nationalists from Prosvita (Education), the NU organized pro-NATO rallies in the southern cities of Odessa, Mykolaiv, Sevastopol, and Simferopol in late May and early June.
The pro-NATO campaign has met with opposition from the pro-Russian and leftist parties such as the Progressive Socialists, the Communists, the Social Democrats, the Russian Community of Crimea, and the major opposition Party of Regions (PRU), which is chaired by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The PRU is not firmly anti-NATO, but it tends to support anti-NATO campaigns as part of its efforts to undermine the current government. Ironically, the NATO campaign plan that the government passed at the end of May was originally drafted by the Yanukovych government in 2007.
The anti-NATO events have attracted no less media attention than the pro-NATO rallies. Anti-NATO activists attacked a pro-NATO rally in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, on May 29, demolishing the opponents’ tents, throwing eggs, and pouring milk and juice over them. The anti-NATO mob also burned a NATO flag before TV cameras. The Communists called the pro-NATO activists “fascists” and “Yankees” and chanted slogans like “NATO wages wars on Slavs!”
On May 30 Crimean Communist leader Leonid Hrach announced that his party had collected some 600,000 signatures against the withdrawal of the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Ukraine, which is scheduled for 2017. The Communists view the Russian navy presence as a circumstance that should prevent NATO from admitting Ukraine. The councils in Donetsk and Energodar declared their cities “NATO-free territories” at the end of May. Both councils are dominated by the PRU. A resolution by the Donetsk council bans the use of the city’s infrastructure for “housing or providing for military units of NATO and other military blocs.”
(Channel 5, May 20; Interfax-Ukraine, May 20, 26, 30; UNIAN, May 27, 29; ICTV, May 30; Ukrainska Pravda, June 2; www.for-ua.com, June 6)