Ukraine's Yushchenko hopeful of joining NATO

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is optimistic his country will soon join NATO, saying Monday public sentiment in his country is moving in favour of membership in the Western military alliance.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is optimistic his country will soon join NATO, saying Monday that public sentiment in his country is moving in favour of membership in the Western military alliance.

Yushchenko, who is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, has been pushing for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to accept the Ukraine in an effort to ensure its sovereignty.

"If you analyze the history of Ukraine in the 20th century," Yushchenko said, "you will see that from 1917 to 1991 Ukraine declared its independence six times and five times we lost it."

He blamed the former Soviet Union for the reversals.

Canada and the United States have been strong supporters of the Ukraine's bid to join the 26-member alliance, established after the Second World War to counter Soviet expansion.

France and Germany have been more cautious, however, worrying such a move will strain ties with Russia, which firmly opposes the move.

Three former Soviet Republics — Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania — have already joined NATO, moves that have angered post-Soviet Russian governments.

Yushchenko said whether Ukraine is allowed to join NATO is not for outsiders, like Russia, to decide.

Public support in Ukraine is growing, he said, with 33 per cent of those polled supporting NATO membership while 27 per cent oppose it. Four years ago only 14 per cent of those polled supported joining the organization, Yushchenko said.

Independent polling still shows more Ukrainians are against joining NATO than are willing to join it, however.

Yushchenko re-election in doubt

The Ukrainian president said the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 was a strong selling point for joining NATO, which guarantees that an attack on one member state is viewed as an attack on the alliance.

Yushchenko faces a difficult election battle in January, with some reports saying only five per cent of Ukrainians support him for re-election. Yushchenko himself said his own numbers have his popularity at 10 per cent and rising.

Ukraine's economy has struggled during the global economic recession, with the country relying on an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund to avoid a complete meltdown.

Parliamentary auditors reported that 879,000 people were unemployed last year, and the IMF said the country's economy will shrink 14 per cent this year.

Yushchenko was poisoned with a deadly dioxin during the Ukrainian presidential election in September 2004 and required dozens of operations to recover, but looked well on Monday, according to reports.

With files from the Associated Press