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Bush outlines NATO conditions for Ukraine

Russian influence, corruption cited as hurdles to acceptance

WASHINGTON -- The United States supports expanding NATO to include Ukraine, a former Soviet republic now trying to loosen historic ties to Russia, but membership in the Western alliance is not guaranteed, President Bush said yesterday.

''There is a way forward in order to become a partner of the United States and other nations in NATO," Bush said during a joint press conference with Viktor Yushchenko, the populist politician whose Orange Revolution forced out Ukraine's pro-Russian government last year.

NATO membership is by invitation of the member states, and requires guarantees of political, military, and economic openness. For Ukraine, joining NATO would mean taking more decisive steps away from Russian influence and cleaning up systemic corruption.

''We want to help your government make the difficult decisions and difficult choices necessary to become available for membership in NATO," Bush said.

Bush gave Yushchenko the red-carpet treatment, welcoming him to the White House for the first time since the former Soviet republic went through a convulsive election fight last year that resulted in the defeat of the pro-Moscow prime minister.

''Today, the United States and Ukraine affirm a new era of strategic partnership between our nations and friendship between our peoples," read a statement issued by the two leaders.

''The ideals for the new Ukraine are the ideals shared by Western civilization," Yushchenko said through an interpreter.

Yushchenko called corruption the number one problem at home. He has promised a thorough investigation of corruption and alleged political skullduggery during his predecessor's 10 years as president.

Yushchenko later spoke to the largest US business lobbying group, the US Chamber of Commerce, and sought to assure business leaders that Ukraine is trying to fight corruption and attract investments.

''I would like to clearly state that the rules of the game [have] changed in Ukraine, that the law is working in Ukraine," he said through an interpreter. He told business leaders that they would cut bribery from their budgets.

Yushchenko is on a three-day trip to the United States to lobby for aid and investment, win Washington's support for joining NATO, and greet Ukrainian-Americans.

The trip comes a little more than two months after Yushchenko took office after a dramatic popular uprising. Masses of supporters camped out in Kiev, claiming that a Kremlin-backed candidate stole the election. The government was forced to allow a second vote, which Yushchenko won.

After the election, Yushchenko claimed that the Russian-backed regime of his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, had tried to assassinate him. Yushchenko suffered near-fatal dioxin poisoning during last fall's presidential election, which left his once-smooth face sallow and pocked.

Bush frequently points to Yushchenko's peaceful rise as an example of the power of democratic ideals. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have said that advancing Ukrainian-style democratic change is the unifying theme of Bush's second term.

Yesterday, Bush called Yushchenko ''an inspiration to all who love liberty," and said Yushchenko was the first world leader he called after his inauguration for a second term in January.

The two leaders stepped quickly past the most visible irritant in their new friendship. Yushchenko is withdrawing Ukraine's troops from Iraq.

The Ukrainian president today will receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award from Caroline Kennedy and Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the Kennedy Library in Boston. He is scheduled to be back in Washington tomorrow to address a joint session of Congress.

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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