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U.S. needs to help Ukrainians succeed

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The U.S. must help Viktor Yushchenko succeed as president.

Viktor Yushchenko's victory in Sunday's Ukrainian presidential election is a triumph for democracy and for the Ukrainians' desire to live in a normal country, free of corruption and cronyism. He survived fraud, massive abuse of government resources by his opponent and a poison attack to win an ugly electoral contest. Now comes the hard part: succeeding as president. Yushchenko's vision for Ukraine — a democratic country with a prosperous market economy and strong links to European institutions — closely matches Washington's. Here's how to help him make that vision a reality:

— The White House should send an early signal of political support. Yushchenko has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be the first foreign leader he meets. President Bush should invite Yushchenko to visit Washington shortly thereafter or stop to meet with Yushchenko in Kiev during his February trip to Europe.

— The United States for years has had to work with a Ukrainian government that was at best ambivalent about reform. Yushchenko will bring to office a commitment to genuine transformation. As he defines his reform priorities, the United States should recalibrate its assistance programs to help him make early, visible progress.

Washington should also increase assistance for Ukraine, as it did for Georgia after the "rose revolution." The administration's aid request for Ukraine for fiscal 2005 is less than $80 million. That compares with $225 million per year in the late 1990s, when the opportunity to promote change was not as real as it is now.

— Investment and trade will do more than assistance to consolidate a growing economy and improve the lives of Ukrainians. Washington should quickly engage Kiev on measures to improve Ukraine's business climate. Fair, transparent rules of the road would increase foreign investment in Ukraine from its current level of $7 billion, a paltry figure when compared with the more than $65 billion invested in neighboring Poland. U.S. and Ukrainian officials can also define a road map to bring Ukraine into the World Trade Organization this year and improve market access for Ukrainian products.

— Congress should swiftly enact legislation to graduate Ukraine from the provisions of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Congress passed Jackson-Vanik in 1974 to increase emigration for Soviet Jews and enhance religious freedom in the Soviet Union. Ukraine meets the requirements on both counts. Graduation would confer permanent most-favored-nation trading status and erase a stigma that is grating to Ukrainians.

— The United States should, in consultation with Yushchenko, design an approach to draw Ukraine closer to European institutions. We can ask allied leaders at NATO's February summit to affirm their readiness to strengthen links with Ukraine. It is not the alliance's place to press countries to launch membership bids. But Washington ought to reiterate what it has said in the past: If Ukraine wants to join NATO, the United States will be supportive, provided that Ukraine does what is necessary to meet the criteria for membership. Most of all, that means developing a political and economic system that reflects the values of the alliance.

The European Union can exert a powerful attraction, and relations with the European Union will be less controversial in Ukraine than relations with NATO would be. The United States and the European Union have worked closely to promote a democratic outcome to the Ukrainian election. Washington now should ask its European partners to reach out energetically to Kiev and state that a Ukraine that meets the democratic and economic standards of Europe can one day aspire to EU membership.

— Finally, one issue could pose an early problem on the U.S.-Ukraine agenda: the Ukrainian military contingent in Iraq. Yushchenko has called for its withdrawal, which Ukrainians overwhelmingly favor. While sustaining coalition support in Iraq understandably matters to Washington, it would be a mistake to let that question dominate the bilateral agenda.

Ukraine has elected a president committed to reform. The country now has a real prospect of following the reform path taken by Poland and other Central European states to become a normal European state. Successfully traversing that road depends foremost on actions the Ukrainians themselves take. But we can help, and a successful Ukraine will mean a more stable and secure Europe. We don't want to let this opportunity slip by.

Steven Pifer, a retired Foreign Service officer, was ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000.