AP Interview: Yanukovych seeks deeper US ties, moving on path to EU membership

NEW YORK (AP) — The Ukrainian president, who has repaired relations with neighboring Russia and taken his country out of the running for NATO membership, said on Wednesday he wants to improve strategic relations with the United States.

Viktor Yanukovych also said that despite restoring historically close ties with fellow Slavs in Russian, his nation is determined to win membership in the European Union.

"The people of Ukraine and Russia are very close. And this allows us to solve many economic issues. It's a good factor, The human factor," he said.

Before Yanukovych was voted into the presidency this year, the Ukrainian government under pro-West former President Victor Yushchenko had turned its back on Russia, which dominated Ukraine in the former Soviet Union. That trend that was immediately halted when Yanukovych took over the presidency. In his first gesture of goodwill toward Moscow, Yanukovych signed a deal allowing Russia to extend its lease on the Black Sea Port of Sevastopol for 25 years when the current agreement expires in 2017. Russia responded by giving Ukraine deep discounts on natural gas.

The Kiev government subsequently passed a measure pushed by Yanukovych that makes Ukraine a so-called "non-bloc" country, meaning it will be technically nonaligned with any global grouping, including NATO.

That, Yanukovych told The Associated Press in an interview, does not preclude cooperation with NATO nor the country's bid for European Union membership.

"Ukraine has chosen its road," Yanukovych said in his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. "It's the road toward the European Union. And we are carrying out our plans and programs in that direction. I'm confident this European road of Ukraine is not going to negatively effect relations with Russia."

But as for NATO membership, Yanukovych said, "Any attempt to take this or the other side will disturb the balance and will create potentially dangerous situations."

Even so, the president said, he felt strategic relations with Washington has not reached a useful level.

"If we want these strategic relations to be on a par with the objectives we have set, I believe we have to increase the level of the commission we have with the U.S. I think we have to elevate this activity." He was speaking of a joint U.S.-Ukraine commission set up to guide bilateral relations under the previous pro-Western government.

During her last trip through Central Europe, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a joint news conference with Yanukovych and said his outreach to Russia was not a concern. She said the Obama administration supports efforts by Ukraine to deepen its relationship with Russia, so long as it also remains open to closer ties to the United States and Europe.

Clinton made no explicit criticisms of Ukraine's human rights record, instead telling Yanukovych the United States is "deeply impressed" by the democratic gains in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, human rights and press freedom advocates remain concerned about Yanukovych's course on those issues.

Last month, Yanukovych took control of the case of an investigative reporter who has gone missing.

In that role, Yanukovych ordered top law enforcement officials to "make every possible and impossible effort" to find Vasyl Klymentyev, the editor of a newspaper in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement earlier in August voicing concerned about Klymentyev's well-being and urging Kharkiv authorities to carry out a thorough investigation.

Klymentyev reportedly was threatened after refusing to accept a bribe to halt publication of a story about a regional prosecutor accused of accepting bribes to close criminal cases.

Yanukovych said such problems were not unique to Ukraine.

"Such problems can be seen occurring in every country in the post-Soviet space. We have them in Ukraine too," he said. "They are separate, individual instances. This is not the policy of the government."