June 8, 2006

Exercises, NATO issue stir turmoil in Ukraine

By Ron Popeski

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine's main opposition party,
sympathetic to Russia, said on Thursday pro-Western President
Viktor Yushchenko was plunging the country into chaos by
seeking NATO membership in the face of public resistance.

Officials announced they had to postpone the "Tight Knot
2006" exercises with Britain, one of a series of such events in
the coming months, because a political stalemate that meant
parliament could not approve the war games.

Small but noisy protests over another exercise -- involving
U.S. reservists in Russian-speaking Crimea -- have meanwhile
underlined how divisive an issue NATO is for Ukraine.

The presence of foreign troops must be approved by the
assembly, embroiled since a March election in talks between
bickering liberal parties on forming a new coalition

Yushchenko, elected after 2004 "Orange Revolution"
protests, is committed to moving Ukraine toward the West and
seeking membership of the European Union and of NATO -- the
latter as early as 2008. But Russia this week denounced any
such notion.

"Ukraine's statehood is under threat," opposition Regions
Party leader Viktor Yanukovich told reporters in Kiev. "Ukraine
is in the grip of destabilization and political crisis."

Ukraine has held joint exercises with Western countries
under NATO auspices since 1997.

But the Regions Party, in danger of being shut out of the
new government, has led protests in the Crimea peninsula since
the arrival last month of U.S. experts and equipment for a set
of exercises planned in July.

About 1,500 protesters massed on Thursday in Theodosia
port, focal point of rallies shown regularly on Russian

Yevhen Kushnaryov, a top Regions Party leader, vowed to
block all parliamentary activity until the assembly
investigated the presence of U.S. men and equipment in Ukraine.
He called for the resignation of both the foreign and defense

"Attempts to speed up the process of drawing Ukraine into
NATO are aimed at once and for all at tearing Ukraine away from
Russia," he told the chanting crowd.


Yushchenko's election has done little to resolve Ukraine's
traditional split into central and nationalist western regions
favoring quick moves toward the West and its Russian-speaking
east wanting to rebuild strong ties with Moscow.

But attitudes to NATO are less clear-cut. While eastern
Ukraine and Crimea oppose NATO, western regions are no more
than lukewarm on the issue.

Yushchenko has complicated matters by insisting all three
parties behind the 2004 revolution solve serious differences on
distributing cabinet posts and adopt a common stand on NATO.

Russia's parliament stoked the row this week by denouncing
Ukrainian membership of NATO. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
said NATO expansion to Ukraine and ex-Soviet Georgia would mean
"a colossal geopolitical shift" against Kremlin interests.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, speaking in
Brussels on Thursday, regretted attempts at "making a political
case out of an exercise that has been taking place for years."

He discounted Lavrov's comments, saying NATO's two waves of
enlargement had "increased stability and security."

Yushchenko this week said Ukrainians needed more
information to counter lingering "myths" about the alliance.

Analysts said the president had complicated his unsteady
position by insisting on fast movement to NATO membership.

"NATO is truly unpopular among ordinary people and, with
his own help there is now increasingly active opposition to
it," said independent analyst Oleksander Dergachyov.

(additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels)