Yushchenko: "The heart of Europe is in Ukraine"

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said Monday that he was hopeful that talks on possible membership for this ex-Soviet republic in NATO could begin next spring. In a speech at Chatham House, a London think-tank where Yushchenko was being honored for his contribution to international affairs, the Ukrainian leader also said he was still pushing for World Trade Organization membership by December, and wanted to see a free trade area between Ukraine and the European Union within 12-15 months.

Yushchenko said he expected to receive an invitation to an "action plan on possible NATO membership" in April or May next year. The timeframe appeared to be earlier than Ukrainian officials have discussed in the past.

NATO has stepped up cooperation with Ukraine since last year's Orange Revolution, which helped bring the pro-Western reformer Yushchenko to power, but it has stopped short of laying out a clear timeline for membership. The military alliance has said that first Ukraine must prove its democratic credentials, fight corruption and modernize its bloated military, the AP reports.

Many analysts, however, believe Ukraine will follow a path similar to other former Soviet bloc nations that have been offered NATO membership years before the EU opened its doors. Membership in the EU is also a key goal set by Yushchenko's administration.

"The heart of Europe is in Ukraine and Europe cannot live with its heart," Yushchenko said in London, speaking through a translator.

Yushchenko was due to be honored later Monday with the Chatham House prize, which was to be presented by Queen Elizabeth II.

Referring to the award, Yushchenko said that "the courage and dignity of the Ukrainian nation deserves this kind of award."

Yushchenko led last year's Orange Revolution when tens of thousands of Ukrainians amassed in the capital, and refused to leave for weeks, to protest the outcome of the presidential election. The fraud-marred balloting was ordered to be held again, and Yushchenko won.


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