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Ukraine`s Prime Minister touts country`s credentials but gets lukewarm response

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said, "The Ukrainian people deserve much better than what they have." Rehn said Europe`s doors remain open to new members, but made clear that membership in the EU is not defined by geography alone.

DAVOS, Switzerland - Ukraine`s prime minister pitched his country`s investment credentials to the world`s rich and powerful on Friday -- but only got a lukewarm response from his audience which included the European Union`s enlargement commissioner.

Pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said the country`s strong democracy and potential as an economic powerhouse between Western Europe and Russia should make Ukraine a candidate for membership in the EU.

While the presentation sought to stake Ukraine`s claim as this year`s compelling investment story at the World Economic Forum, the unenthusiastic assessments of the ex-Soviet country`s reform process from EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga ensured that Ukraine failed to engineer the splash garnered in previous years by China and India.

              WHERE IS UKRAINE HEADING? LUNCHEON

Nevertheless, the "Where is Ukraine Heading?" session held on the Forum`s sidelines pulled in a number of major international figures including billionaire George Soros, Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, Poland`s ex-President Aleksander Kwasniewski, French Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a number of top Russian businessmen.

"I`m not sure why some challenge the sincerity of our European aims," said Yanukovych, who pledged huge government investment in the country`s state-owned highways and utilities, and new laws to simplify regulation of business.

Yanukovych shares power in an uneasy arrangement with pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko. While the government has been plagued by a constant tug-of-war partially caused by the country`s unclear constitutional division of power, Yanukovych sought to allay fears that he was attempting to take power away from his rival.

"I am for a reasonable system of checks and balances that makes it impossible to usurp power," he told a group of about 150 people at a Davos hotel. "Neither the government nor the prime minister ever aspires to replace the president."

The glitzy presentation featured an independent report saying that Ukraine would one day become an EU country, even as the 27-nation bloc earlier this week refused to give any promise of future membership for its giant eastern neighbor.

Rehn and Vike-Freiberga were reserved about Ukraine`s chances and urged the prime minister to gain consensus on a clear direction for the country.

                    UKRAINIAN PEOPLE DESERVE BETTER

"Make up your mind. Make a commitment. Do it. We`re with you," Vike-Freiberga said. "The Ukrainian people deserve much better than what they have."

Rehn said Europe`s doors remain open to new members, but made clear that membership in the EU is not defined by geography alone. On future prospects for Ukraine, he said only "never say never."

One enthusiastic advocate for Ukraine`s EU bid, however, was former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

"Gaining membership in the European Union is an important and attainable goal for the Ukrainian government, that has the potential to create a stronger Europe," Clinton said in a taped video address.

On Monday, the EU agreed to begin negotiations for closer across-the-board ties with Ukraine but refused to go any further than the proposed "enhanced relationship" -- seen as a setback for Britain and Poland.

Ukraine is one of 13 members of an EU "neighborhood" program of broad economic aid and eventual free trade that specifically excludes future membership.

The others are Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority and Tunisia and -- to the east -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova.

The program offers easy access to the vast EU market of 455 million consumers in exchange for economic and political reforms designed to keep the EU`s fringes secure and stable. The arms-length nature of the aid program has long irked Ukraine.  

This article was monitored by the ArtUkraine Monitoring Service for the Action Ukraine Report, E.Morgan Williams, the editor.

 

By Bradley S. Klapper, Associated Press Writer

AP, Davos, Switzerland, Friday January 26, 2007

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