Opposition in Ukraine collects 4.5 million signatures for referendum against joining NATO

A pro-Russian Ukrainian opposition bloc said Wednesday that it has collected more than 4.5 million signatures for a referendum against joining NATO.

The opposition bloc move reflects the feeling of many Ukrainians, particularly in the Russian-speaking east, still have a negative attitude toward the alliance and President Viktor Yushchenko attempts to have Ukraine join what the country's former Cold War foe.

"We will do our utmost to force Yushchenko to do it .... he must hold a referendum", said Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of bloc "Ne Tak."

NATO has said it would help Ukraine push through the necessary reforms, but has dodged questions about when it might offer membership.

Medvedchuk, the former head of ex-President Leonid Kuchma's administration, said last October that his bloc had started collecting signatures for a referendum to let voters decide whether or not Ukraine should join NATO.

He said Wednesday that all documents had been delivered to the central election commission. The commission has a month to check the signatures and then it is to send them to the president who would set a date for a referendum.

Under Ukrainian law, more than 100,000 signatures in two thirds of the country's regions are needed to call a referendum.

Ukraine 's NATO ambitions are strongly supported among the 10 former communist nations that have already joined the alliance. Some other NATO members insist Kiev must first push through reforms to underpin a fragile democracy, tackle widespread corruption and streamline the outdated Soviet-era military apparatus.

Yushchenko came to power in a court-ordered revote after mass protests in late 2004 over election fraud, defeating his Kremlin-backed opponent, reports the AP.

D.M.

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