- Title: UKRAINE: Thousands of Ukrainians protest at the notion of NATO membership
- Date: 4th April 2008
- Summary: VIKTOR YANUKOVICH WAVING TO SUPPORTERS CROWD STAGE WITH YANUKOVICH INDEPENDENCE SQUARE
- Embargoed: 19th April 2008 13:00
- Location: Ukraine
- Country: Ukraine
- Topics: Domestic Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA7HRGWHI4MKSYWER26PNX401FE
- Story Text: Thousands of protesters massed in Ukrainian cities to denounce any notion of NATO membership on Thursday (April 3) after the alliance said the country could join one day, a move hailed as "historic" by their president.
NATO leaders meeting in Romania rejected a proposal to grant Ukraine and Georgia a "Membership Action Plan" (MAP) to put them on a fast track to membership despite support from U.S. President George W. Bush.
Instead, they offered a vague promise that the former Soviet republics could join in the future and said Kiev's former master Moscow had no right of veto.
But Ukrainians remain deeply divided over NATO membership. Recent opinion surveys show support at about 30 percent, with most respondents saying the issue is of secondary importance.
Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, told a 5,000-strong rally in pouring rain in Kiev: "Today, we must not allow a policy of cooperation to be replaced, against the will of the Ukrainian people, by the idea of joining of military-political bloc. Today we must say categorically 'No!' to such actions by authorities and other officials."
Yanukovich's 10-minute address was part of a concert of popular rock performers in Kiev's Independence Square.
Only moderate crowds attended gatherings staged by his Regions Party in its Russian-speaking strongholds of southern and eastern Ukraine, where NATO membership remains unpopular.
A rally in Yanukovich's power base, the coal-producing city of Donetsk, attracted no more than 6,000 people.
Public opinion remains sharply divided in Ukraine on most issues, with the Ukrainian-speaking and nationalist west and centre broadly backing faster integration with the West, while Russian-speaking areas want to retain closer ties with Moscow.
Many Ukrainians appeared uncertain about whether their country had a future role in the alliance.
"I think in the first instance you have to ask the Ukrainian people. A referendum will show whether we want this or not. It's very simple," said Liliya, a pharmacist from Lugansk.
But Volodymyr, an engineer from Kiev, thought joining NATO would be an improvement.
"I believe that if Ukraine joins NATO, our standard of living will rise. And our defence capability and military industry will also develop, I hope."
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has made membership of NATO and the European Union cornerstones of the policy embodied by the 2004 "Orange Revolution" protests against poll fraud that swept him to power.
But the country has since become bogged down in political infighting which has largely paralysed decision-making.
Yanukovich, backed by Moscow in the 2004 race, now favours integration with Europe, but denounces the bid to join NATO.
All political forces in Ukraine agree that no decision on joining NATO will be taken without a referendum.
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