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17 August 2017
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NATO head assures Ukrainians over membership

NATO`s secretary general, visiting Ukraine to bolster thin public support for joining the Alliance, said on Monday that membership would in no way oblige the country to host foreign bases or send soldiers off to war...

NATO`s secretary general, visiting Ukraine to bolster thin public support for joining the Alliance, said on Monday that membership would in no way oblige the country to host foreign bases or send soldiers off to war.

NATO`S Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko also said Ukrainian membership would not harm the interests of neighboring Russia, with which many Ukrainians have close ties and which objects to Kyiv moving closer to the alliance.

The NATO chief met Ukrainian leaders two months after an alliance summit gave Ukraine and another ex-Soviet state, Georgia, an undertaking they could eventually join, though they did not give them a firm timetable for accession.

Speaking at a news conference, Scheffer said it was important to spell out what Euro-Atlantic integration meant and to dispel "myths" over NATO membership.

"It does not mean NATO bases on Ukrainian soil ... It does not mean any Ukrainian soldier will be forced to take part in NATO`s operations or missions. That`s a myth, a big myth and let me debunk that myth in your presence today."

NATO membership, he said, was not aimed against Russia which had its own partnership with the alliance. "Nothing in what I have said or what the allies have done or are going to do should be considered as directed against our partner Russia," he said.

Yushchenko has made NATO and EU membership foreign policy cornerstones since being catapulted to power by protests against voter fraud which came to be known as the "Orange Revolution".

PUBLIC OPINION OPPOSED

But with Ukraine still broadly divided into a nationalist west and a Russian-speaking industrial east more sympathetic to Moscow, large swathes of public opinion remain opposed to NATO, depicted as a war-mongering enemy under Soviet rule.

Yushchenko repeated that a decision on joining would be put to a referendum. Polls put support at no more than 30 percent.

In the run-up to Monday`s talks, a few hundred anti-NATO protesters skirmished briefly with riot police near Yushchenko`s office. A smaller number rallied in favor of membership.

Yushchenko said he hoped the alliance would grant a Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- a fast track to membership -- to Ukraine at a December meeting of alliance foreign ministers.

"I believe that third parties not in NATO should have no right of refusal in terms of membership," he told reporters.

Public opinion, he said, could be changed through dialogue with the people and a united position among leaders.

"We must rid ourselves of myths and legends which, for nearly 60 years, were imposed on us by the front page of Pravda," he said, referring to the Soviet Communist party daily.

Since NATO`s April summit, Russia has intensified opposition to Ukrainian and Georgian membership, suggesting it could take "military steps" if they joined.

Relations have become tense over several disputed issues, including the presence of Russia`s Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine`s Crimea peninsula, governed by a lease that expires in 2017.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, speaking in the Fleet`s home port of Sevastopol on Saturday, said NATO membership would lead to a severance of military ties, reduced trade and industrial co-operation and the introduction of visas.

Yushchenko`s adversaries, including ex-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, say low public support rules out fast membership.

By Ron Popeski, Reuters

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