NATO, meeting on Russia`s doorstep, held talks with Ukraine Friday to assess its progress toward membership of the alliance, but prospects for a promised entry action plan were dim, Reuters reported.

Russia deeply opposes Ukraine`s efforts to join NATO, while opinion polls show only about a third of Ukrainians support it. Ukraine`s domestic political turmoil has made NATO hesitant, though the alliance has said Ukraine, and Georgia, will one day be members.

"A country`s right to freely choose its security alignments is another important principle in this regard and a test for a Europe we all seek to build," said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, referring to Russia`s objections.

The talks were being held in the capital of Estonia, another former Soviet state, which entered NATO in 2004, breaking away from its powerful neighbor to the east.

Speaking at the start of the talks in which NATO was to assess Ukraine`s security and defense reforms, the NATO chief also took a fresh swipe at Russia for recognizing breakaway Georgian regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

He said the recognition of the regions after a short war with Georgia in August violated basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Despite such words, Ukraine`s hopes for a promised Membership Action Plan -- the path to NATO membership -- at a summit of the alliance in December looked dim.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pushed his allies to offer Ukraine and Georgia a MAP this year but this now seems unlikely.

"I doubt very much that either in Estonia or at the ministerial (in December) or even at the NATO summit next year Ukraine is going to get an invitation to a MAP, unless of course something dramatic is going to happen," said Janusz Bugajski, of Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He cited Ukraine`s political instability as a major reason for the country not getting the action plan.

This was shown again Wednesday when Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko dropped plans for an early parliamentary election, which he had wanted to resolve political deadlock after the break-up of a coalition led by him and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, his former ally and now arch rival.

Within NATO, nations such as Germany and France are concerned about the alliance`s relationship with Russia and not want to see it soured by overtures to Georgia and Ukraine.


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