STRASBOURG, France – New Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (search) told Europe's top human rights body Tuesday that his nation would push through democratic reforms to prepare itself for a bid to gain membership in the European Union.
Yushchenko began his push for closer ties to the West by declaring, "We see ourselves as Europeans."
He added that European Union (search) strategy has to include the prospect of Ukraine membership.
"Inside the country, we are going to reorganize the government so the process of integration into the EU becomes a real one," Yushchenko told legislators from the 46-nation Council of Europe (search).
"One cannot open European doors with rhetoric but with performance. That is what my government will do," he said.
Even though the EU has excluded so far possible membership for Ukraine, Yushchenko insisted the strategy of the 25-nation bloc "has to comprise the membership prospect."
He called EU membership "a simple formula for well-being and security."
"A new nation, a proud nation, has emerged in Europe," Yushchenko said.
His appearance in Strasbourg and an address Thursday to the European Parliament (search) in Brussels is seen as the start of a delicate balancing act between Brussels and Moscow that he will have to follow in the years ahead.
Yushchenko has said that the country must first seek to be recognized as a market economy by the EU, and work to enter the World Trade Organization (search) by the end of the year.
Also, the Council of Europe, which serves as the continent's premier human rights watchdog, has often criticized Ukraine for its controls over media and individual rights.
On Monday, Yushchenko visited the Kremlin to counter fears that he wants to take his country out of Moscow's sphere of influence.
In his inaugural speech Sunday, Yushchenko made clear his aim to shift Ukraine's focus and seek a place within the European Union. He also wants Ukraine to join NATO.
On Tuesday, the European Commission (search) began setting out some targets, but with no commitment to eventual membership. Instead, it proposed more cooperation on trade, immigration, security and foreign relations.
"We welcome the intention of the EU to develop a new strategy," Yushchenko said, but added it should also include possible membership.
In Kiev, lawmakers voiced the same message, saying they expected the nomination of Yulia Tymoshenko (search) as prime minister will jump-start economic reforms to get Ukraine into the European Union.
"The country needs fast reforms as it's necessary to join the European Union," said lawmaker Yuriy Pavlenko, a Yushchenko ally.
Western governments and industry experts hailed Tymoshenko for pushing through energy sector reforms as deputy prime minister. After her ouster from the Cabinet in 2001, Tymoshenko turned against former President Leonid Kuchma (search) and set up a party bloc and a parliamentary faction.
Russia was Yushchenko's first foreign visit as president, an acknowledgment of Moscow's close, historic ties to Ukraine as well as the Kremlin's role as Kiev's top trading partner and investor. He also needed to smooth ties after Russian President Vladimir Putin's (search) overt support for Yushchenko's rival, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (search).
In Strasbourg, Yushchenko was also to open an art exhibit with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (search) 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 add to Russian concerns of waning influence over former Soviet republics on its doorstep.
Ukraine is strategically important to Moscow, which sees the country as a buffer zone between Russia and the expanded EU and NATO, as well as a major transit route for its oil and gas exports.
Ukraine remains heavily dependent on Russian trade and energy supplies. The EU and NATO are keen not to upset relations with Moscow and have taken a cautious approach to Ukrainian calls for membership.
Poland, which joined the EU in May along with nine other new members, is eager to get neighbor Ukraine on the membership track. But with Turkey and several Balkan nations already seeking to join the EU, many in the Union are concerned that expansion is getting out of hand.
The Council of Europe, which serves as the continent's premier human rights watchdog, has often criticized Ukraine for its controls over media and individual rights — issues Yushchenko will have to tackle.
Yushchenko has promised to turn Ukraine around after years of corruption, at almost every level of government, and he pledged to safeguard freedom of speech.