Huffpost Politics

Ukraine's Pro-Western Government Collapses

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KIEV, Ukraine — President Viktor Yushchenko accused Russia on Tuesday of trying to destabilize Ukraine by encouraging separatists in the Crimea, as fears grow about Russia's willingness to throw its weight around the former Soviet Union.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Yushchenko sought to tamp down criticism of his leadership in Ukraine after the collapse of his pro-Western coalition raised the possibility of a third parliamentary election in as many years.

Russia's war with Georgia last month rattled Yushchenko's pro-Western government, which like Georgia has pushed for membership in NATO and the European Union. Many Ukrainians wonder whether Ukraine will be the next victim of Russia's drive to stop NATO's expansion to its borders.

Many fear Moscow could lay claim to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that once belonged to Russia and is now home to Russia's Black Sea fleet. More than half its residents are ethnic Russians.

Yushchenko said Russia was interested in causing "internal instability" in parts of Ukraine.

"Without a doubt, such scenarios exist," he said.

"For some of our partners, instability in Ukraine is like bread with butter," he said.

Yushchenko said Ukraine was too big and strong to give in to threats from Russia or a repeat of the war in Georgia, which resulted in Russia invading the country, routing its military and occupying large swaths of its territory. Moscow has recognized two breakaway Georgian regions as independent nations.

"Will they repeat the Georgian scenario?" Yushchenko asked. "For sure, no."

"Ukraine is not Georgia," he said. "I think that today to deal with a country like Ukraine in such an inconsiderate manner ... is not a good idea for anyone."

Russia wants to continue leasing the Sevastopol naval base in the Crimea from Ukraine after the current agreement expires in 2017. Yushchenko said the war with Georgia, with Russian warships based at Sevastopol participating, showed again that the Russian navy must leave Crimea.

Ukrainian officials also have accused Moscow of stirring trouble with claims that the Crimea belongs to Russia and by allegedly giving Russian passports to thousands of Crimeans to stoke separatist sentiments.

Yushchenko, who has made NATO membership the central theme of his four-year presidency, promised that Ukraine would eventually join the Western alliance, and he vowed to overcome domestic resistance to NATO. Opinion polls show more than half of Ukrainians oppose membership, with opposition strongest in the Russian-speaking regions in the east and south, including Crimea.

Yushchenko, wearing a striped black suit and red tie, spoke and gestured confidently during the 30-minute interview. His face looked nearly healed of the pock-like scars caused by the dioxin poisoning that briefly knocked him out of the 2004 presidential election race. He has suggested the near-fatal poisoning was masterminded in Russia.

Yushchenko spoke hours after his coalition was declared dead, starting a 30-day countdown for lawmakers to either form a new alliance or call elections.

Yushchenko said the collapse did not threaten the country's tumultuous democracy. He accused his coalition partner Yulia Tymoshenko _ the prime minister who was his ally in the 2004 Orange Revolution _ of betraying national interests and acting selfishly.

The alliance between the two leaders' parties disintegrated amid infighting ahead of the 2010 presidential election, in which both expect to compete.

Yushchenko's allies pulled out of the coalition after Tymoshenko sided with opposition lawmakers to curtail presidential powers. Yushchenko again accused Tymoshenko of acting on the Kremlin's behalf by failing to condemn the war in Georgia and of seeking to retain power at all costs ahead of the vote.

Tymoshenko said in a statement before the interview that she hoped Parliament would find a way out of the crisis.

Analysts believe that the next coalition may include the Russia-friendly Party of Regions and be more responsive to Moscow's demands.

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Associated Press writer Olga Bondaruk contributed to this story from Kiev.

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