TODAY ONE OF Europe's largest nations will make the transition from corrupt police state to fledgling democracy. In a ceremony in Kiev, Viktor Yushchenko is due to be inaugurated as president of Ukraine, just under a month after his decisive victory in a free and fair election -- and two months after a Russian-sponsored attempt to install a new authoritarian regime by fraud backfired. Mr. Yushchenko will begin his presidency with an open-air address in Independence Square, headquarters of the popular "Orange Revolution" that forced the retreat of the thuggish clique that governed Ukraine for the past decade. Then he will begin the difficult task of finding a place for his transformed country between a bitter Vladimir Putin and the democracies of the West. The danger is that Ukraine will be stranded between them.
Mr. Yushchenko has wisely chosen to travel to Moscow tomorrow in a show of goodwill toward Russia -- even though Mr. Putin blatantly backed the rigged election of his opponent as a way of converting Ukraine into a Kremlin colony that would share the authoritarian system he is constructing. After nearly four weeks of silence, the Russian president finally issued a frosty statement of congratulation to the new Ukrainian president on Thursday. But he appears not to have given up his notion that this former Soviet republic of some 50 million belongs to a Russian sphere of influence: At a recent press conference he warned Mr. Yushchenko against surrounding himself with ministers Moscow considers "anti-Russian." Mr. Yushchenko will have to resist such pressures while offering Russia continued access to Ukraine's rapidly growing economy, as well as assurances that Russian-speaking Ukrainians will face no discrimination.
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After Moscow Mr. Yushchenko plans a circuit through Western Europe, including a meeting with the European Parliament. His aides say that the new government intends to seek rapid integration into Western democratic institutions, beginning with the European Union. Yet while those governments supported the Orange Revolution, their obvious reluctance to embrace Ukraine mocks the portrayal of Mr. Yushchenko by Russia and its Western sympathizers as a Western pawn. Asked about E.U. membership in Kiev on Friday, foreign policy chief Javier Solana responded that "nothing is impossible," a formulation that sounds upbeat compared with what other officials say in public and private.
Many European governments are reluctant to accept another large and relatively poor Eastern European country into their union; others are loath to offend Mr. Putin, who dreams of creating a rival, Moscow-dominated economic bloc including Ukraine. A dozen years ago, when newly democratic nations in Central Europe such as Poland and Hungary faced similar European timidity, the United States committed itself to consolidating the new regimes by offering a path to membership in NATO. President Bush pledged aggressive support of new democracies last week; Ukraine offers him an early opportunity to translate his rhetoric into action.