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A New Ukraine

Friday, December 10, 2004; Page A36

UKRAINE'S POLITICAL leadership has taken a major step toward resolving the country's political crisis in a way that makes possible the liberal democracy that the popular "orange revolution" has demanded during the past two weeks. The ratification by parliament Wednesday of a compromise package of laws and constitutional amendments agreed upon by the government and opposition should greatly improve the chances that the rerun of the presidential election later this month will be free and fair. At the same time, reforms to take effect late next year will inhibit any return to authoritarian rule in Ukraine by shifting some powers from the president to the parliament and local governments. These changes may, as the corrupt outgoing government no doubt hopes, dilute a victory in the new presidential election for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. But the amendments, and the decision by both sides to accept a peaceful compromise, could also confirm Ukraine as a genuinely democratic country -- which is, after all, what this struggle has really been about.

It is still too early to celebrate such a success. The new election must be properly held on Dec. 26, and be confirmed as legitimate by the thousands of Ukrainian and foreign monitors who will be present. Though he now enjoys a commanding lead in opinion polls, there is reason for concern about the health of Mr. Yushchenko, who believes he was poisoned several months ago. His face has been transformed by cysts and scars, and his prognosis is uncertain. Nor is it clear how President Vladimir Putin of Russia will react to the rebuff of his overt support for the fraudulent election of government candidate Viktor Yanukovych, or Ukraine's turn away from Russia's emerging authoritarianism. The United States and European Union have resisted Mr. Putin's model in Ukraine while trying to avoid confrontation with its author, but the West must be prepared to respond to further anti-democratic meddling.

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The biggest challenges fall to Mr. Yushchenko, a former prime minister with a charismatic style but an uneven record of political leadership. In the coming weeks he must keep the large popular movement behind him mobilized but also peaceful, and try to expand its reach as much as possible into the eastern regions of Ukraine, where sympathy for Russia and the use of its language predominate. If elected, he must seek a cooperative relationship with Moscow -- as he did in his previous term in office -- while aggressively attacking the corrupt, thuggish government and crony capitalism against which Ukrainians rebelled. Encouragingly, Mr. Yushchenko spoke this week with The Post about accountability for such notorious crimes as the 2000 murder of an investigative journalist, probably by government agents. Above all, he must convince Ukrainians, and a watching West, that their country has a place in the expanding global community of democracies. Should he do so, the West and its institutions, such as NATO and the European Union, should be prepared to respond as they have to other new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe: with open doors.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company