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Experts Debate East or West Future for Ukraine

The Ukrainian opposition is confident that Victor Yushchenko will be declared Ukraine's president after a second round of voting in the nation's contested presidential election. Mr. Yushchenko's chief of staff says such a victory on December 26 would further align Ukraine with the Europe and the West. But at a forum in Washington, Friday, some experts say Ukraine's future is more complicated than simply turning to Europe or to Russia.

The chief of staff for Ukraine's opposition candidate Victor Yushchenko is certain that his pro-West boss will soon be the leader of Ukraine.

Speaking to a packed room full of academics, policy analysts and former ambassadors at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, Oleh Rybachuk radiated energy and optimism, his bright mood matching the orange scarf around his neck.

Mr. Rybachuk said he is excited, not just about the prospects for Victor Yushchenko, but for what he believes is the economic and political future of Ukraine -- a future he says will further link it to Europe and the West. "We have strategy. We have action plan. We have everything which is needed for Ukraine to immediately from the first minutes of political power to move in that direction. And here we would like to be very clear. Our priority is exclusively Euro-integration. We don't have a multi-vectoral policy. We are clearly moving for joining the EU and becoming a member of the NATO, and we are telling Russians the same message," he said.

Ukraine's deputy minister of foreign affairs, Oleh Shamshur, said the future is not as clear-cut as a choice between Europe and Russia. But he agrees that Ukraine is leaning toward Europe, in part because the European Union is seen as a source of stability. "Should we be using the conjunction 'or' when speaking about Ukraine's relationship with Europe and Russia ? The answer to this question cannot be simple, almost by definition. I would argue that the answer might be positive when you speak about societal choices and prospective security choices. I believe that Ukraine is on its way to confirm its truly and unmistakably European identity," he said.

But the deputy minister adds that looking toward Europe does not mean Ukraine is turning its back on Russia. "Our relations with Russia are extremely important for both countries; the economies, the people, but they are also important for Europe, especially for its stability and security," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would not object to Ukraine joining the European Union, saying it would likely have a positive effect on Russia's economy as well.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky said, in her view, Ukraine will choose its own course. "Ukraine will continue to determine its own future and relationships with other countries, and international organizations as it has done since independence in 1991. And good relations with both Russia and the West will be important to Ukraine and to broader peace and stability," she said.

Ms. Dobriansky notes that closer ties between Ukraine and the West will benefit the entire region. However, she says the United States did not promote pro-West candidate Yushchenko, or pro-Muscovite candidate Victor Yanukovych, but is instead promoting democracy.

To that end, she says the United States is supporting efforts to place thousands of domestic and international election monitors across Ukraine to ensure a free and fair election that is not tainted by the abuses of last month's vote.