24 October 2005 - Assembly President Lellouche calls for clear timetable for Ukrainian accession to NATO
The President of the Assembly, M. Pierre Lellouche (France) paid an official visit to Ukraine from 17 to 20 October accompanied by two Assembly Vice-Presidents, Jozef Banás (Slovakia) and Vahit Erdem (Turkey).
This visit included meetings with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko; Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov; the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Mr Volodymyr Lytvyn; Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, and the Secretary of the Council of National Security and Defence, Mr Anatoliy Kinakh.
The visit also included a joint meeting with leading members of the Verkhovna Rada and the permanent representatives of the North Atlantic Council. Meetings also took place with leading members of the Rada, including Oleg Zarubinskiy, the leader of the Rada's delegation to the Assembly who organized the Presidential visit.
The delegation also had the opportunity to visit part of the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol.
The meeting in the Rada with the NATO Council to which the NATO PA group was invited was an illustration of the convergence of effort and intent towards Ukraine that exists between the executive and parliamentary sides of the Alliance.
Several key themes featured prominently during the meetings with Ukraine's political leaders. Foremost among these is the government's strong desire to move forward as rapidly as possible with Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration. In the immediate future, this entails making economic reforms and passing certain legislation in order to qualify for membership of the World Trade Organization, to which Ukraine is hoping to be invited before the end of 2005.
Another key theme, of course, is NATO membership. All the government speakers left no doubt about their commitment to pursue this goal while recognizing that qualification for membership will depend upon the successful implementation of an ambitious and wide-ranging series of reforms. The clear desire is that Ukraine will be invited to move beyond "Intensive Dialogue" and into the "Membership Action Plan" stage by December 2005 or June 2006 (those dates being set by ministerial or summit decisions in those timeframes.)
There was acknowledgement that internal political turmoil within the government had slowed down the reform process and had even restrained economic growth, but it was felt that the new government was already starting to recover lost ground.
A source of consistent concern was that while the government is solidly pressing for membership of both NATO and the European Union, public support for NATO membership in particular is as low as thirty per cent. This is due to the persistence of the old Cold War stereotype with NATO being portrayed as an aggressive purely military Alliance, an impression which the former leadership had done little to try to dispel. While it was clearly felt that the public strongly supported the democratic, economic, and political reforms that were an essential prerequisite of Euro-Atlantic integration, NATO membership was seen in an entirely different light.
The Ukrainian leadership was well aware that the main burden of explaining the rationale for NATO membership was for it to resolve. It was pointed out that international assistance was urgently needed for the disposal of Ukraine's enormous stockpiles of surplus arms and munitions including 1.5 million small arms, several million anti-personnel mines, and over a million tons of conventional munitions. NATO is already providing assistance in this area through its Partnership for Peace Trust Fund which involves funding of over €25 million over a twelve-year period. However, although this assistance was very welcome, it represented only a small step in the direction of what remained to be done. Further assistance would help Ukraine deal with the environmental and physical hazards posed by these stockpiles, while also showing NATO in very positive light.
Assembly members were also most interested to learn that Ukraine was making good progress in its negotiations with Russia and Turkmenistan regarding gas supplies. Ukraine's dependence upon energy imports has been a long-standing concern, and earlier this year the situation threatened to deteriorate with both Russia and Turkmenistan seeking to increase energy prices substantially. It now appears that long-term agreements are proceeding well with both nations.
President Lellouche stressed that Ukraine was a European nation: as a matter of both geography and history, it was as European as, for instance, Poland and France. Europe and the Alliance needed a stable, democratic, prosperous, and strong Ukraine. This was also in Russia's best interests. Regarding Ukrainian membership of NATO, in his view, "the sooner, the better". A clear timetable for membership was important as a means of mobilize the political elite and the public.
He expressed the Assembly's willingness to help and work with Ukraine, and pointed to Assembly members' participation in observing all three rounds of last year's Presidential elections as a clear indication of that commitment. He believed that the Assembly's members would agree without hesitation to playing a similar role in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2006 and which would be seen by Ukrainians and the international community as an indication of the progress being made with democratic reforms.