- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

On Aug. 24, 1991, five days after an attempted coup launched by Soviet hardliners, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union. The declaration of independence by a country with a population of 50 million became one of the pivotal factors in the largely peaceful dissolution of the USSR.
With independence came the hope that statehood would bring political freedom and rapid economic prosperity. Now, ten years after the heady optimism that accompanied Ukraine's declaration of independence, the balance sheet for freedom and reform is mixed.
Independence has brought legislative stalemate, a succession of prime ministers, and two presidents with roots in the Soviet establishment, high-level corruption, political scandals, and economic decline. Now, however, Ukraine at last appears to have turned an economic corner with 18-months of drastic growth, the only sustained upturn in Ukraine's brief, 10-year-long history. Its severe problems of corruption and political scandal notwithstanding, the emergence of courageous civic activists and independent journalists, offers hope that the country can continue the process of democratic nation-building.
While Ukraine has seen a recent upturn in harassment and political pressures against opposition parties and free media, including the murders of investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze and other reporters, there is still significant space for independent civic and political activism. The range of freedoms Ukrainians enjoy today is far greater than the limited freedoms enjoyed in the waning years of glasnost and perestroika.
Moreover, democratic electoral practice remains intact. Despite allegations of corruption and wrongdoing against President Leonid Kuchma, emanating from a sensational Watergate-style tapes scandal, the country's leadership has not moved in the direction of outright authoritarian rule or the suspension of the democratic electoral process.
Moreover, Ukraine has begun to abandon its communist legacy. While a retrograde Communist Party continues to command the loyalty of around a quarter of the population, many of them older workers and pensioners, the emerging post-communist generation is very much attracted to ideas of personal liberty and economic freedom.
Perhaps most crucially, Ukraine has also overcome the Soviet legacy of a deep divide between the Russian-speaking East and the Ukrainian-speaking West. Though voters in Eastern Ukraine and on the Crimean peninsula still support political currents nostalgic about the former USSR, they have rejected extremist groups preaching separatism and reunification with Russia. Indeed, regional differences are diminishing as most of the population becomes accustomed to statehood.
As significantly, despite its problems with corruption, nearly two years of an economic turnaround have led to an annual growth rate of 5.8 percent in 2000 and 9.2 percent in the second quarter of 2001. This, in turn, has helped increase the numbers of legitimate entrepreneurs, who are slowly becoming an important political force for reform.
The key to the emergence of a modern and democratic Ukraine is most directly linked to free market economic reform, and Ukraine's recent progress on that count is the direct result of the leadership of one man: Viktor Yushchenko. As prime minister from December 1999 until April of 2001, Mr. Yushchenko initiated numerous economic reforms, guided Ukraine through its first period of consistent economic growth since independence, and kept inflation in check. On April 26, parliament ousted him on a vote of no-confidence a direct result of Mr. Yushchenko's effective policies, which included gaining control of the corruption-riddled energy sector and sharply reducing cronyism and patronage in privatization and the awarding of licenses and contracts. Ukrainian oligarchs, who long benefited from corrupt practices, aligned with the still influential Communist Party of Ukraine, and forced Mr. Yushchenko's removal. Their action demonstrates the political strength wielded by the oligarchs, who control major economic and political structures in the country, as well as much of the media. According to recent polling data, anger over the actions of the oligarchs has led Ukrainians to rally Mr. Yushchenko's side and he is by far the most popular politician in the country. Ukrainians recognize the accomplishments of his administration, and many are moving to back his new center-right political coalition in parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2002.
The United States has a vested interest in the well-being of Ukraine as a sovereign nation and potential ally in Eastern Europe. Ukraine has received over $2 billion in foreign assistance from the United States over the past 10 years. While it may be easy to point to Ukraine's many deficiencies and suggest that aid has failed, in reality, U.S. and Western assistance has helped nurture and educate a new generation of reform forces committed to completing the democratic and economic revolution that began with the collapse of communism ten years ago. Yet because of dissatisfaction with the pace of reform, the House of Representatives voted to reduce aid to Ukraine to $125 million for fiscal year 2002, down from a presidential request of $169 million. The cutback is unfortunate. Ukraine is at a crucial juncture in its young history and aid should not be reduced rather, it should be targeted at reinforcing the many positive civic and economic forces that have emerged in Ukraine in the last decade. In other words, aid should not be seen as a reward for good behavior by governments, but rather as an investment in those sectors of the economy, civil society, and the media that share a pro-Western, pro-democratic and free market orientation.
The coming months will be a crucial time in independent Ukraine's history. Parliamentary elections in March of next year will go a long way toward determining whether reformist forces once again take the upper hand, or whether the country drifts along a vector of corruption, economic inefficiency, increased political controls, isolation from the West and increased Russian influence.
With the stakes in this geopolitically crucial state so high, maximum Western and U.S. engagement is the most sensible way of building on the hunger for freedom that helped to peacefully bring down the USSR a decade ago this month.

Michael Sawkiw, Jr. is president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, and Adrian Karatnycky is president of Freedom House and co-editor of "Nations in Transit 2001."


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