Politics & Policy

Embracing Ukraine

Friends and enemies.

The Bush administration continues to press for foreign assistance in Iraq, but without notable success. Brazil is the latest country to say “no.” Both Germany and Russia now indicate a willingness to help, but not with troops. Said Russian President Vladimir Putin in advance of his summit with George W. Bush: “In practical terms at present, the question of sending Russian troops is not on the agenda. It’s not even being considered now.”

#ad#Moscow opposed the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. The human-rights group Freedom House reports that Russia is growing less free, even as Putin seems headed towards reelection next year. A number of U.S. analysts agree with former world-chess champion Garry Kasparov that Moscow is no friend of America. However, the Bush administration has been willing to forgive and forget. Indeed, Mr. Putin routinely receives kindly treatment in Washington–in sharp contrast to that of another member of the former Soviet Union which has been more helpful: Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Leonid Kuchma supported the Bush administration’s war in Iraq and recently deployed 1,800 troops to help with the occupation. His rule has been tainted by charges of corruption and abuse of power, but Kuchma is on his way out, not up. Yet the Bush administration has been keeping Kiev out in the cold. Better would be to turn Ukraine into America’s and the West’s economic partner.

Balancing security and human-rights concerns has never been easy. Washington supported a cohort of repressive dictatorships while confronting the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Even President Jimmy Carter, who regularly and grandly spoke of human rights, lauded the thuggish shah of Iran for his alleged commitment to democracy.

Neither the Reagan nor first Bush administrations spent a lot of time worrying about their allies’ fidelity to individual liberty. Now the second Bush administration understandably if uncomfortably ignores human-rights violations in such allied states as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to better prosecute the war on terrorism. And Washington seems unconcerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin has combined hostility towards America with only semi-democratic rule.

In fact, maintaining good relations with a nuclear-armed former rival, whose political future remains uncertain, is a reasonable foreign-policy strategy. But why not adopt a similar approach to Ukraine, the second-largest piece of the former Soviet Union, which has generally backed America? Especially since there are powerful forces pushing Kiev towards Russia’s orbit. Warns Anatoly Halchynsky, an adviser to President Leonid Kuchma, “Russia tried to exploit the cooling of Ukraine’s relations with the West.”

Kiev has done much to please the U.S. Ukraine abandoned its nuclear arsenal, left over after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

When the Bush administration decided to kill the ABM treaty two years ago, Ukraine, in contrast to Russia and Europe, offered its support. And Kiev, which has participated in a number of U.N. peacekeeping operations, backed Washington’s policy in Iraq. It sent a 450-member chemical-decontamination brigade to Kuwait before the war, opened its airspace for allied flights, helped airlift supplies during the war, and offered 1800 troops as part of the Polish-led international brigade to relieve U.S. Marines on occupation duty.

Moreover, Kiev has been addressing complaints involving trade and intellectual property; even Washington acknowledges that Ukraine is tightening up its export controls. Former U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual referred to a policy “of small steps,” which helped resolve some trade issues, facilitate cooperation on money laundering, and the like. Earlier this year Washington discussed Kiev’s possible entry into NATO, though that remains far in the future.

Yet the government of two-term President Kuchma remains in ill repute in Washington. Charm is not a notable characteristic of the former manager of a Soviet arms factory; he has been burdened by a barrage of unflattering charges and unremitting political opposition at home.

So-called financial oligarchs have been influential in his administration; the opposition media has complained of government pressure. Economic reform has been slow. Washington grew ever more distant over charges that Kuchma was complicit in the murder of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze–tapes of Kuchma’s alleged conversations raised suspicions, but their authenticity was contested and his involvement was never proved.

He also was accused of allowing the sale of Kolchuga radar systems to Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions. Kiev vehemently denied the allegation and no such equipment turned up in Iraq after America’s victory, though Washington remains suspicious that Kuchma approved the deal.

Ukraine’s presidential election is scheduled for October 2004 and Washington will be tempted to meddle. Although Kuchma is constitutionally barred from running again, some supporters have argued that he is not bound by the restriction since it was passed after he was elected. But he has repeatedly said that he doesn’t intend on running, for which Ambassador Pascual congratulated him.

The list of possible successors is long. Within the government today are Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, with his own somewhat dubious past, and Viktor Medvedchuk, a leading legislator and head of presidential administration in the Kuchma administration. National Bank Chairman Serhy Tyhypko is also mentioned. All have been attacked by the opposition–Ukrainian politics is not for the fainthearted–and none seems favored by Washington. But none is burdened with Kuchma-like political baggage.

Opposition figures have been better received in the U.S., both in the human-rights community and government circles. Former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko heads the Our Ukraine bloc in the Rada. Former cabinet minister Yulia Timoshenko manages her own party.

Yushchenko, a Kuchma appointee ousted by the previous parliament, is perceived as a pro-Western democrat. Yet of late he has spoken of the need for a good Ukrainian-Russian relationship and his party split over Bush administration foreign policy goals. Yushchenko and a sizable minority of his party opposed deployment of the chemical-weapons specialists; he supported sending occupation troops to Iraq but most of Our Ukraine’s members voted against.

Timoshenko has been portrayed as a reformer but faces corruption charges at home. Moreover, she has joined the Socialist and Communist parties in forthrightly opposing any Ukrainian role in Iraq.

Although Washington still seems to lean against the Kuchma government, its attitude may be warming. This worries some in the opposition. Political commentator Volodymyr Polokhalo says: “The Americans thought they hooked Kuchma, but it’s the other way around.”

Whatever the case, rather than attempting to play politics in Ukraine, Washington should focus on encouraging Kiev to more effectively integrate itself into the world economy. After a decade of dismal economic performance, Ukraine’s economy is finally growing swiftly; its latest Eurobond issue, worth $800 million, was oversubscribed. But Kiev remains desperate to encourage more foreign investment. The government is setting up a new agency in hopes of attracting more foreign capital. Although foreign investment was up 50 percent last year, next-door Poland still collects as much in a single year as Ukraine has received over the last dozen years.

Ukraine is pressing to join NATO. Better would be freer trade with America, membership in the World Trade Organization and accession to the European Union. Bizarrely, commerce with Kiev is still restricted by the Cold War Jackson-Vanik Act.

The U.S. should remove this restrictive Soviet-era law that still applies to Ukraine and encourage Ukraine’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Prosperity would help speed economic reform in Ukraine. It would also aid building civil society, so necessary for democratic reforms to take root. Indeed, membership in the EU would require Kiev not only to free its markets but also loosen its political system; the attempt to meet EU membership criteria has helped advance democracy in Turkey, for instance.

Moreover, this approach would help cement Ukraine’s ties to the West. Earlier this month Ukraine, Russia, and two other former republics in the old Soviet Union signed an agreement to create a customs union of sorts called the Unified Economic Space. Potential presidential candidate Tyhypko had pushed to accelerate the process, while the U.S. ambassador, John Herbst, publicly criticized the accord:

I think we must look carefully at the consequences of the steps that have been taken, and whether they fit in Ukraine’s desire to be integrated into the Euro Atlantic community. It is in the interests of Ukraine not to have this integration complicated. The United States fully supports Ukraine’s desire to become a member of the Euro Atlantic community and join the global economic community. We closely cooperate with Ukraine’s government in order to help it join the WTO.

But that requires concrete steps from Washington. Indeed, Herbst’s predecessor, Carlos Pascual, referred in his farewell speech to an “internal tug-of-war” over “Ukraine’s place in Europe.” And in the world, too.

Attempts by Washington to directly micromanage the economic and political processes in foreign countries is never easy. Doing so in Ukraine is particularly complicated, since the politicians perceived as more democratic have been less supportive of U.S. policy.

“Some have speculated that if Ukraine might provide deployments in Iraq, then perhaps the United States and NATO would ignore transgressions of democratic values in Ukraine,” says former ambassador Pascual. “The answer is, unequivocally, ‘No’.”

Even so, with elections in the offing Washington would best keep its hands off the political process while pushing for greater economic liberalization. A prosperous Ukraine integrated into the world community is most likely to be a free Ukraine friendly to the West.

–Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Doug Bandow — Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, and the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

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