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Ukrainian leaders push for membership in NATO, but citizens are divided over joining alliance
An anti-NATO protester holds banners reading "Bush Don't Stick your Nose in" and "NATO's Breakfast" in the center of Kiev. Ukraine, Wednesday, on March, 2 2008. More than half of Ukrainians opposes membership in the Western military alliance, polls show. - photo by Associated Press
    KIEV, Ukraine — At dinner, Leonid and Yelena Adrov don’t just talk about their daughter’s grades or summer vacation plans. The couple has another issue to discuss — Ukraine’s bid for membership in NATO.
    ‘‘Our soldiers should not be sent to die’’ in conflict zones, says Leonid, a 35-year-old Kiev construction worker who is against joining the Western military alliance.
    ‘‘We should be moving in the direction where life is better,’’ counters his wife, also 35, an accountant who believes NATO membership will bring Ukraine closer to western Europe.
    At the alliance’s summit in Bucharest, Romania, this week, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is determined to persuade NATO states to give his country a road map to membership. But Ukrainians are deeply divided, with more than half opposing the idea.
    The west of the country looks to Europe and hopes NATO membership will make Ukraine a truly European state. But the Russian-leaning east is suspicious of the former Cold War foe and doesn’t want to spoil relations with Moscow, which fiercely opposes the alliance’s eastward expansion.
    NATO also is split on whether to begin the membership process for two Ukraine and another young democracy, Georgia.
    The United States strongly backs the idea. Just before the summit, President Bush visited Kiev in a show of support for the two former Soviet states.
    ‘‘We must make clear that NATO welcomes the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine for membership in NATO and offers them a clear path forward toward that goal,’’ Bush said Wednesday in Bucharest.
    But key European powers, namely Germany and France, are opposed, unwilling to upset already uneasy relations with Russia, the main supplier of energy to Europe.
    In Ukraine, the split is even deeper.
    According to a poll conducted in February by the Razumkov Center, 53 percent of Ukrainians opposed joining NATO and only 21 percent supported the idea. The rest were either undecided or uninterested. The survey of 2,017 people across Ukraine had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.
    ‘‘The attitude (toward NATO) is quite bad,’’ said Andriy Bychenko, head of the center’s sociological service.
    The differences are deepened centuries-old historical and geographical divides.
    Joining NATO was backed by nearly half the people polled in western Ukraine, which was once under Polish and Austro-Hungarian domination. Proponents see membership as a first step to full integration with the European Union. They appreciate U.S. help and wish Europe were more supportive.
    But in eastern parts of the country, which were long under Russian rule, as many as 70 percent of residents were bitterly opposed to membership. Central and southern regions were also hostile toward NATO.
    Most opponents fear spoiling relations with Russia, which has threatened to aim nuclear weapons at Ukraine if it joins the alliance and deploys anti-missile defenses on its territory. Millions of Ukrainians who live and work in Russia or have relatives there would also suffer if Moscow were to require visas.
    ‘‘Our ties are too deep and if joining NATO is a risk to our good relations, then I am voting against,’’ said Hanna Herman, a senior member of the opposition Party of Regions, the main opponent of NATO membership.
    NATO’s military operations are another concern.
    Ukraine has sought to prove itself by deploying troops to Iraq in 2003-05 and sending peacekeepers to Kosovo and Lebanon. A Ukrainian peacekeeper died in violence in Kosovo last month, prompting angry rhetoric from NATO critics. Many here fear joining NATO would mean sending troops to Afghanistan, where Ukraine suffered losses during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
    Ukrainian leaders’ request in January for a road map to membership led to weeks of embarrassing protests in parliament. Opposition lawmakers filled the legislative chamber with balloons and anti-NATO posters, scuffled with opponents and even locked the parliament speaker in his office.
    The battle over NATO also spilled onto the streets. During Bush’s visit this week, several thousand activists rallied in a central square and outside the U.S. Embassy holding up obscene posters, chanting ‘‘Yankee go home,’’ and burning an effigy of the American president.
    Despite democratic achievements since the 2004 Orange Revolution and reforms to modernize the military, Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders have failed to defeat Soviet-era stereotypes of NATO as an enemy and aggressor.
    ‘‘I don’t trust NATO. I want to be with Russia and Belarus, with Slavic people,’’ said Halyna Reztsova, 65, a retired tailor who was among several dozen anti-NATO activists rallying under red communist flags in Kiev.
    Associated Press writer Olga Bondaruk contributed to this report.

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