President Bush, celebrating the recent Orange Revolution in Ukraine as a "powerful example of democracy for people around the world," promised its visiting leader yesterday that he would help the former Soviet republic move closer to the West and eliminate decades-old trade barriers.
By hosting a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who rode a wave of popular indignation to power last December, Bush hoped to fortify the new government and send a signal to other countries struggling with tyranny. At the same time, the show of support may be seen as a challenge in Russia, which has grown jittery at three such revolutions on its borders in the past 16 months.
At a news conference with Yushchenko before a White House lunch, Bush endorsed the peaceful street revolution that toppled an unpopular establishment in Kiev as a model for others to follow. "We share a goal to spread freedom to other nations," Bush said with Yushchenko at his side. "I mean, after all, the Orange Revolution may have looked like it was only a part of . . . the history of Ukraine, but the Orange Revolution represented revolutions elsewhere as well."
With his face still badly scarred from a mysterious dioxin poisoning during last fall's campaign, Yushchenko renewed his commitment to reorienting his nation of nearly 50 million toward the rest of Europe -- and implicitly away from its historic place in Moscow's orbit. "The ideals for the new Ukraine are the ideals shared by Western civilization," he said.
Bush offered support for Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO and the World Trade Organization and vowed to lift Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions, first imposed against the Soviet Union in 1974 and still applied to some of its former parts. Bush for three years has promised to lift restrictions against Russia without convincing Congress, but Ukraine may be an easier sell on Capitol Hill. If Bush succeeds first with Ukraine, it will be seen in Moscow as another slap.
But the United States has pledged support for Yushchenko before without following through. While he was prime minister, many Ukrainians complained that Washington did not do anything to help him succeed in enacting Western-style reforms and he was fired by a change-resistant parliament in April 2001 after 16 months.
"Obviously there have been disappointments," said Markian Bilynskyj, the Kiev-based vice president of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, which promotes good ties between the two countries. But he expressed hope that this time will be different. "The key has been set for the renewal of the strategic relationship between the two states. Now it's up to the officials in the two countries to put some meat on the bones of this goodwill."
In that light, Bush noted yesterday that he has requested $60 million to help cement Ukrainian democracy as part of a larger supplemental appropriations bill. But he did not mention that the House has cut that request to $33.7 million. Nor did he mention his administration's decision to cut 46 percent of funding for democracy and civil society programs in the former Soviet Union over the past four years.
For all the comity of yesterday's meeting, Bush and Yushchenko agreed to disagree about Iraq. Yushchenko promised during his campaign last year to withdraw Ukraine's 1,650 troops from Iraq, one of the largest non-U.S. contingents, and he has committed to following through since taking office. Bush brushed off the dispute. "He's fulfilling a campaign pledge," Bush said. "I fully understand that."
Yushchenko's four-day trip to the United States will be a celebration of the bloodless street revolt he led after the old government tried to rig an election to install then-President Leonid Kuchma's chosen successor. With the help of activists trained by U.S.-funded groups, hundreds of thousands of protesters occupied Kiev's main square, most wearing orange, the symbol of Yushchenko's campaign, until forcing authorities to order a new election, which Yushchenko won easily.
Washington has eagerly embraced Yushchenko ever since. Yushchenko is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday and, with his Ukrainian-American wife, make several other stops in the country.
To further solidify ties, Bush and Yushchenko agreed to ease travel between the two countries. In a joint statement, the presidents said Ukraine would eliminate visa requirements for visiting Americans, while the United States would reduce visa fees for Ukrainians. The two also committed to enhancing cooperation on fighting AIDS, curbing the proliferation of nuclear material and ballistic missiles, and completing the construction of a shelter over the old Chernobyl nuclear plant.