Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on Friday told eight counterparts at a regional democracy forum that their endeavor should not be seen as a slap at Moscow's dominance. "I would like to especially emphasize that our initiative is not directed against third countries or institutions. Instead, I see our community as an open dialogue between friends and supporters of the ideals of democracy and the rule of law," Yushchenko said as he opened the meeting.
In addition to Yushchenko, who took office after last year's Orange Revolution, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and the presidents of the three ex-Soviet republics in the Baltics attended the conference. The gathering, called the Community of Democratic Choice, discussed regional stability, the development of democracy and economic cooperation. In spite of Yushchenko's attempts to portray it otherwise, many analysts see the new grouping as an attempt to weaken Russia's influence in the post-Soviet region.
Also attending were presidents of Macedonia, Moldova, Slovenia and Romania as well as senior officials from the European Council, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "The time has come to use our historical potential and to build integration to a higher level, using European values," Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said. "We've made our democratic choice and now we have only to unite to protect this choice."
The leaders took turns speaking, with most hailing the importance of democratic values. After the nearly three-hour meeting, the leaders adopted a declaration creating a permanent regional pro-democracy forum. "We hope that this farsighted mission ... will unite all countries of the region in joint efforts to strengthen our regional cooperation, promote democracy and protect human rights," the declaration said.
"This forum is part of Ukraine's policy to promote development of democracy in the region," Deputy Foreign Minister Anton Buteyko said. Yushchenko and Saakashvili, who took office after the 2003 Rose Revolution protests, were the initiators of the gathering. Both have pursued a pro-Western course, dragging their nations out of Russia's strong influence.
"From the very beginning this forum was planned with the aim of limiting Russia's leadership position in the region," analyst Mykhaylo Pohrebinsky said. Ukraine's parliamentarians are divided over the regional forum, but all agreed that it is a challenge to the Kremlin. Communist legislator Alla Aleksandrovskaya claimed that the forum was being held "under pressure from the United States with the aim of isolating Russia from Europe."
But lawmaker Valeriy Shushkevych, an ally of pro-Western opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, countered that it was a right step as "democracy is being turned back in Russia and Ukraine does not want to repeat that", informs the AP. N.U.