Defense, foreign ministers criticize Ukrainian premier for putting NATO bid on hold

Western-oriented President Viktor Yushchenko on Friday criticized his prime minister for saying that Ukraine's bid to join NATO would be put on hold.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was Yushchenko's bitter foe in the 2004 Orange Revolution and who is seen as comparatively pro-Russia, said Thursday after meeting NATO officials in Brussels that Ukraine would not push for quick entry into the alliance. He said support for joining NATO is declining in Ukraine.

Yanukovych's position is "a mistaken point of view and does not correspond to national interests and must be corrected," Yushchenko said after a four-hour meeting with the premier. Yanukovych became prime minister last month after months of bitter wrangling following his party's winning the most seats in parliamentary elections.

The criticism was backed by the defense and foreign ministers both of whom are appointed by the president, unlike other ministers who are named by parliament.

"Such a move by prime minister is groundless, illogical. Moreover I believe it is a mistake," said Defense Minister Anatoliy Grytsenko.

Yanukovych said Thursday that eventual NATO membership would have to be submitted to a referendum, but that such a vote could only be held after the country had undergone economic and political reforms.

Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said he regarded Yanukovych's statement as reflecting only the position of his party, and that "nobody canceled the main priorities of the state's foreign policy."

Under Ukraine's constitution, the president is in charge of foreign policy, but on a question such as NATO membership he would need the support of the prime minister and government. Yushchenko has assented to the idea of a referendum on the issue.

Yushchenko's party, Our Ukraine, said that Yanukovych's statement was "a direct violation of a political agreement," referring to the memorandum on national unity signed last month by leaders of the main political forces. That memorandum was key to getting Yushchenko to submit Yanukovych's nomination as premier to the parliament, reports AP.

"It is a negative message, and I think it will affect our strategical interests of our state," said Yushchenko's ally Anatoliy Kinakh.

Opinion polls show that most Ukrainians oppose alliance membership; many are distrustful of their former Cold War foe, while others fear membership would irretrievably harm relations with Russia while bringing little significant benefit.

"Yanukovych was bold enough to express the real opinion of Ukrainians. It is right," said his ally Mykola Pryzyazhnyuk.