NEW YORK — Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko says he is optimistic that his country will join NATO, declaring the tide of public opinion in the former Soviet republic is swinging in favor of membership in the Western military alliance.
Yushchenko, who faces a tough re-election battle in January, also disputed reports that only about 5 percent of Ukrainians support his re-election in January, saying his poll numbers show about 10 percent backing with the number rising.
The embattled Ukrainian leader spoke Monday with The Associated Press shortly after arriving in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. He said NATO membership, which the United States supports, was not a matter for outsiders, like Russia, to decide.
The Kremlin, smarting over NATO expansion into its former Baltic republics and Central and Eastern European satellites after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, has put extreme pressure on Ukraine not to join the alliance.
But Yushchenko declared he was determined to bring Ukraine into the Western alliance, which was established after World War II to counter Soviet expansionism in Europe.
"I would like to underline that if you analyze the history of Ukraine in the 20th century," Yushchenko said, "you will see that from 1917 to 1991 Ukraine declared its independence six times and five times we lost it."
He blamed the Soviet Union for the reversals.
Yushchenko, who looked well after he was poisoned under suspicious circumstances as he successfully fought for a first term as president in 2004, declared that 33 percent of Ukrainians support NATO membership while the number opposed has slipped to 27 percent. He said that contrasted with figures four years ago of only 14 percent favoring alliance membership with 30 percent to 37 percent opposed. Independent polling in the country still shows a majority against joining NATO.
"We have good dynamics, and month by month the number of NATO supporters is growing," he said. "I'm a great optimist. I'm sure Ukraine will follow the path of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria."
He pointed also to the Russian invasion of Georgia, another former Soviet republic, in August 2008 as a strong selling point for NATO membership, which includes a guarantee that an attack on any member state will be viewed as an attack on the alliance as a whole.
The Russians swept into Georgia, also a candidate for NATO membership, after it sought to bring the breakaway region of South Ossetia back under central government control.
After the invasion, Russia declared that South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region in Georgia, were independent states under Moscow's protection.
Appearing unfazed by his lack of support with the January election just four months away, Yushchenko said: "I plan to win."
"I have done some things I can be proud of," he said. "In the last four years our GDP grew 7 to 7 1/2 percent (annually). ... We made considerable social changes. We took care of orphans. ... Unemployment is the lowest of the 18 years of our independence. Living standards are the best in 18 years. We've instituted free speech, free press, free elections."
But this year Ukraine's economy is among the worst suffering in Europe from the global economic recession and the country has relied on an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund to avoid a complete meltdown. The IMF has predicted that Ukraine's economy will shrink by 14 percent this year.
In June, parliamentary auditors reported that unemployment had risen to 879,000 people since last year as the metals and chemical industries laid off thousands of workers.
Independent polling shows Yushchenko likely to lose the presidential election. Polls have the incumbent trailing both Moscow-aligned Viktor Yanukovych, whom Yushchenko overwhelmed in the so-called "Orange Revolution" in 2004, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She was a close ally of Yushchenko in the last election, but they have become bitter enemies and do not speak to each other.
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