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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Asks EU Not to Be Left Out

APSaakashvili and Yushchenko waving as they arrive Tuesday at the Council of Europe.
STRASBOURG, France -- New Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko insisted Tuesday that his country can meet requirements to join the European Union and called on the 25-nation bloc to offer the prospect of full membership.

Addressing European officials during his maiden trip to the West, Yushchenko admitted that Ukraine, poor and with a legacy of corruption, had a long way to go but pledged to "reorganize the government so the process of integration into the EU becomes a real one."

EU officials have cautioned that Ukraine -- like other potential applicants -- could face a long wait before joining the bloc. Earlier Tuesday, the European Commission gave no firm commitments, proposing more cooperation on trade, immigration, security and foreign relations.

Yushchenko, who took office on Sunday, said the European Union's future strategy "has to comprise the membership prospect."

"I'm sure Ukraine is the heart of Europe," he told the Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights body. "The future of Europe is impossible without Ukraine."

"We welcome the intention of the European Union to develop a new strategy of relations with Ukraine," Yushchenko told the council's Parliamentary Assembly.

"This is an important signal. I am convinced that the new paper should contain a prospect of membership. We believe that the EU-Ukraine Action Plan should be reviewed," he said.

But any hope of quick accession was dented by EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner who warned against "premature steps" to bring Ukraine into the bloc.

Yushchenko's overtures to the West have alarmed the Kremlin, which openly backed his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, in last year's bitterly contested presidential election.

Yushchenko held talks with President Vladimir Putin on Monday to counter fears that he wants to take his country out of Moscow's sphere of influence. His appearance in Strasbourg and a planned address to the European Parliament in Brussels on Thursday were seen as the start of a delicate balancing act he will have to follow in coming years.

He told the Council of Europe that Ukraine would seek to build partnerships to the East and West.

"We have our eternal neighbor Russia with a huge market. Not understanding this market would be a huge mistake," he said.

Holding his hand to his heart in a show of gratitude for the council's support, Yushchenko outlined his plans for democratic reforms.

"I can assure you that as the president of Ukraine I will make every effort possible to ensure the democratic changes that are taking place at the moment ... are irreversible."

The council has criticized Ukraine's human rights record in the past. But Yushchenko, who was inaugurated on Sunday and visited Moscow on Monday, committed his government to human rights, media freedom and fighting corruption.

"As for human rights ... democracy is the supremacy of the law," he said. "We will also ensure our institutions become democratic and create a base for all our public institutions to function democratically, in particular the courts."

He welcomed EU plans to draw up a new strategy on Ukraine and pledged to improve living standards to encourage Ukrainians who have left to return home.

Also Tuesday, Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili opened an art exhibit titled "Rose Revolution of Georgia and Orange Revolution of Ukraine."

Saakashvili and Yushchenko both favor a pro-Western course. They have forged a close friendship and their appearance together in Strasbourg could also add to Russian concerns of waning influence over former Soviet republics on its doorstep.

EU foreign ministers are expected to review relations with Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels next week.

One step that Yushchenko would like to see is EU recognition of Ukraine as a market economy and backing for its entry into the World Trade Organization by the end of the year.

(AP, Reuters)