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Ukraine's President Attends NATO Summit Despite Lukewarm Welcome


Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has joined leaders of NATO partner states at the alliance's summit in Prague, despite being told he would not be welcome. There are suspicions that he sold radar equipment to Iraq. Mr. Kuchma found the seating arrangements at the meeting changed, so that he would not have to sit near his main accusers.

Although Ukraine is a member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which includes countries ranging from Ireland to Uzbekistan, he was given strong hints by NATO leaders that it would be better if he stayed away from Prague.

In an effort to snub Mr. Kuchma, NATO downgraded its bilateral meeting with Ukraine at the summit to the foreign minister level. But, as president of a partner country, Mr. Kuchma has the right to attend meetings of the Euro-Atlantic Council, when they are conducted at the head-of-state level.

The alliance's decision to give the cold shoulder to the Ukrainian leader came after the United States and Britain accused him of personally approving the sale of a Kolchuga early warning radar system to Iraq, in breach of United Nations sanctions. Mr. Kuchma has repeatedly denied the charge.

On Thursday, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson told reporters he was uncertain Mr. Kuchma would show up at the summit. "The president of Ukraine knows the problem, knows that there is a shadow over him in relation to the export, the possible export, of Kolchuga radar systems to Iraq," he said.

But Mr. Kuchma came to Prague anyway, turned up at an official dinner Thursday night, and joined the other leaders at the summit on Friday.

NATO protocol experts found a way to prevent Mr. Kuchma from sitting next to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and one seat away from President Bush. They chose not to use the English alphabetical order for seating, the system that is normally used at the alliance summits. Instead, they arranged the seating in French alphabetical order, which meant that Mr. Kuchma was placed at the end of the table, with the Turkish president on one side and nobody on the other.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko told reporters Friday his country is ready to cooperate with the United States and Britain to defuse what he described as their groundless criticism of Mr. Kuchma's involvement in the purported radar sales to Iraq. But he said Ukraine cannot give full access to bilateral arms sales deals, because that is privileged information. "We are open to our American counterparts, except for the information as for the Kolchuga transferred to some countries," said Anatoly Zlenko. "You must understand that we're obliged to protect this information and the bilateral agreements.

Mr. Zlenko says Ukraine is frustrated that the United States and Britain do not agree with this line of reasoning.

He also says Ukraine will continue to pursue membership in NATO. But diplomats say, with the credibility problems the Kuchma government now has with the alliance, there is little prospect of that happening anytime in the near future.