BERLIN, March 1 (UPI) -- Ukraine is on a westward course toward the European Union, yet the country's advances for NATO membership have been put on hold ever since the country started being led by an unlikely team-up between a pro-Russian prime minister and a pro-Western president.
Viktor Yushchenko became the hero of the peaceful democratic Orange Revolution when he beat Viktor Yanukovych for the office of the president. Yet Yanukovych bounced back last year to become prime minister when his pro-Russian Party of Regions won the most votes in parliamentary elections and assembled a ruling coalition with Yushchenko as president.
Yanukovych, who has been accused by Yushchenko as trying to satisfy Moscow with his decisions, has slowed down Ukraine's westward push; while Yanukovych favors EU membership for Ukraine, he is more critical toward inclusion in NATO. He has also brought about the dismissal of the country's pro-Western foreign minister, and the parliament, where Yanukovych's party holds a majority, last week refused to endorse Yushchenko's new nominee for the post.
"Ukrainian cohabitation -- along the French or Polish models -- was nothing but a myth," Alexander Rahr, Ukraine expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a commentary for the Yalta European Strategy, an organization that pushes for Ukraine's EU membership. "Yanukovych grasped power from a weak presidency and submitted the economy and foreign policy under his control."
Yanukovych demonstrated that power Wednesday evening in Berlin, where he gave a speech on his country's ambitions toward EU membership.
After a meeting with German business leaders and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government currently holds the rotating six-month EU presidency, the prime minister said at a policy discussion in Berlin's lavish Adlon Hotel that Ukraine was making "convincing steps toward democracy."
Still, he acknowledged that Ukraine, which gained independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, "still has much homework to do to raise the living standards of the people and meet the economic and social standards of the EU."
Yanukovych said he was optimistic that Ukraine will become a member of the World Trade Organitzation -- "That's an issue that will be solved this year," he said -- and to establish a free trade zone with the EU, a move that Merkel is also supporting.
Germany is Ukraine's second-largest trade partner after Russia, "but there still is a huge unused potential," Yanukovych said.
"Ukraine's economy is growing ... last year, our gross domestic product grew by over 6 percent," he said. "And we will create the necessary conditions for western European and especially German firms to have security to invest."
While German firms are eager to make money in Ukraine, an important energy transit country, officials in Brussels are careful when it comes to fueling Kiev's EU optimism.
The German EU presidency has the tough job of reviving the dead-thought EU constitution, and before decisions are made in that regard, no expansion is going to happen, Brussels has previously said.
Rahr, the Germany analyst, however, said Ukraine could be of much use to the EU when it comes to negotiating a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia in securing future energy imports and how to tackle frozen ethnic-territorial conflicts in the European neighborhood.
"Ukraine could become a partner for the EU in resolving the Transnistria territorial conflict issue and replace Russia as the chief peacekeeping force in Moldova," Rahr wrote in a commentary. "Ukraine could also become more active in supporting the opening of Belarus versus the EU."
It's another issue with NATO: The trans-Atlantic military union would likely accept Ukraine with open arms, as the country has participated in international missions, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But while Yushchenko would favor NATO membership, Yanukovych is strictly against it.
"Russia remains the main strategic partner for Ukraine," he said.
While the public opinion in Ukraine sides with Yanukovych on this issue, Alexandr Kwasnievski, the former Polish president, said there was another aspect that stood in the way of NATO membership.
"That's Russia's opinion, but that's not so very much important," he said, drawing laughter from the audience in the Adlon Hotel.