YALTA - Russian President Vladimir Putin defended a pact by four former Soviet republics to create a single economic zone as being "in the national interests" of all the countries concerned.
On Sept. 19 Belarus, Kazakh-stan, Russia and Ukraine signed an accord, which had come under fire from international and domestic critics.
Meeting the presidents of the three republics with whom he later signed the pact, Putin stressed on Sept. 18 that the accord had been "the result of a compromise." The accord "meets the interests of each of our countries down to the last details," he said.
But the viability of the pact, which has to be ratified by the four nations' parliaments before taking effect, was thrown into doubt by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who suggested holding a popular vote on it. "Let's hold a referendum," he said in response to a reporter's question. "I'm for it."
Many Ukrainian officials are against the pact, fearing that it could harm Kiev's chances of eventually joining the European Union and the WTO.
Moscow, however, has been pushing for the agreement. "We have moved toward the idea that we initiated — the creation of a single economic zone," Putin said.
In addition to domestic critics, EU, NATO and U.S. officials have also warned Kiev off the pact. "In my opinion, it does not coincide with Ukraine's interests," U.S. Ambassador in Kiev John Herbst said.
European Commissioner for Enlargement Guenther Verheugen warned Kiev last week of the problems that could arise from the creation of a customs union by the four republics.
Bruce Jackson, a U.S. official with the Western defense alliance NATO and who was actively involved in alliance expansion in Eastern Europe, also criticized Kiev's decision.
Western critics argued strongly that joining the single economic zone would delay Ukraine's plans in becoming a member of the EU and the WTO.
Ukraine, however, defended its position. "The foreign policy of my country remains unchanged — European integration," Foreign Minister Konstantin Khryshch-enko said.