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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kuchma: Forget EU, We Have Russia

APUkrainian President Leonid Kuchma
KIEV -- President Leonid Kuchma said Tuesday it was time Ukraine stopped aspiring to EU membership, saying the bloc had kept his country waiting too long and had little need for its planes, coal or tractors.

Kuchma said Ukraine should instead use other trade blocs to boost growth, playing to fears the country could run back into Russia's sphere as the European Union prepares to expand its borders eastward.

"How long can they keep us on the threshold? Ukraine is tired of waiting. No one, not even a petty bureaucrat, has said they want Ukraine in the European Union," Kuchma told a news conference.

"Let's stop talking about becoming an EU member, let's just put before us the aim of reaching European standards. ... And I say to those who are in a hurry, if they asked me to join the European Union today I would refuse. ... Who in Europe needs our planes, our coal industry, our machine building?"

It was not clear whether Kuchma's remarks represented an official change of policy.

Ukraine, which will border the European Union next year when Poland, Hungary and Slovakia join, has been slow to reform since independence in 1991 and is criticized by the West for failing to protect human rights and freedom of speech.

Kuchma, who has ruled for nine years, had once said it was his goal to take Ukraine into the European Union by 2011. But he has become increasingly frustrated by the lack of movement on talks and on EU policies which he says close Europe's markets to Ukraine.

Last year, European Commission President Romano Prodi said Ukraine had no place in an enlarged European Union, but other EU officials have said if Ukraine carries out reforms it could have a chance of becoming an associate member.

Kuchma said he would instead look for an economic boost from Ukraine's traditional trade partners -- Russia, neighboring Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Earlier this month, Kuchma signed an economic union agreement with those countries to end border tariffs, form a customs union and create a unified tax regime. Diplomats have said the agreement is a clumsy attempt by Russia to keep neighboring states under its thumb.