Major praises 'free' Ukraine

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John Major expressed Britain's strong support yesterday for the freedom and independence of Ukraine, saying Europe needed the country to play an important role in the stability of the continent.

Speaking after more than an hour of talks with Ukraine's President, Leonid Kuchma, at Kiev's Mariyinsky palace, the Prime Minister said: "I am delighted because we are now able to visit an independent Ukraine, independent for five years, that has now set its feet firmly towards a new and different future."

Mr Major's visit was intended to underline British solidarity with Ukraine at a time when the question of future security arrangements in eastern Europe is causing increasing strains between Western countries and Russia.

Nato's plans to incorporate some countries west of Ukraine, notably Poland, are being matched by a Russian drive to reintegrate with several former Soviet republics, especially Belarus.

Ukraine, caught in the middle, has no desire at present to join Nato but is determined not to be pulled back into a Russian sphere of influence. Its dilemma is accentuated by the fact that the spirit of Ukrainian nationalism and independence is much stronger in western regions of the country than elsewhere.

Mr Major praised Ukraine's efforts to dismantle its Soviet-era command economy and introduce market reforms along the lines that have proved generally successful in Poland and, increasingly, in Russia. "We believe that Ukraine's success is important for Europe's stability, and we are firm supporters of the independent and democratic Ukraine that is being created," he said.

"Over the last few years Ukraine has been undergoing some remarkable political and economic reforms. None of these reforms is easy, but a great deal of progress has been made," he added.

Mr Major and Ukraine's Prime Minister, Yevhen Marchuk, signed two agreements covering cooperation against drug-trafficking and the confiscation of profits made from organised crime.

Mr Kuchma, a former director of the world's largest missile plant in Dnipropetrovsk, and Mr Major reviewed issues of nuclear safety that are to be addressed at a summit in Moscow today and on Saturday.