WASHINGTON: Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych wants to reassure officials in Washington that he is an ally of the United States and Europe, but his offers of partnership stopped short of asking that his country be allowed into NATO.

In a speech to a Washington think tank Monday, Yanukovych said his parliament soon would complete action on a series of bills designed to meet the demands of the World Trade Organization for entry. But his country was not ready to join NATO, he said, repeating a long-standing position that puts him at odds with the Ukraine's pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko.

On his first visit to the United States since becoming prime minister in August, Yanukovych met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for discussions the State Department said ranged from investment and Ukraine's bid for WTO membership to regional energy issues.

Yanukovych also met with other officials including Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

Earlier, Yanukovych assured the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that his country is on a path toward political and economic reform.

"There can never be too much democracy in the Ukraine, just as there can never be too much freedom," Yanukovych said.

About NATO, he did not rule out eventual membership but claimed that most Ukrainians feared that joining the Atlantic alliance would harm relations with Russia. Several members of the old Soviet bloc, including the former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, already are among the alliance's 26 members.

Yanukovych said he hoped Ukraine would begin talks about joining the European Union while he is prime minister.

He offered assurances that Ukraine could be relied upon to deliver Russian gas to Western Europe. Last year, Russia temporarily suspended gas exports to Ukraine which pinched the supply on the continent.

Yanukovych said improved relations with Russia and a deal he reached in October with Russian energy giant Gazprom had eased the threat.

Speaking about another concern often raised by European and American officials, Yanukovych said that his parliament was pursuing legislation to reduce Ukraine's endemic corruption. He announced Ukraine would sign an anti-corruption agreement Monday with the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. program that seeks to reduce poverty by rewarding countries for establishing open markets and following other good governance practices, the Associated Press reported.


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