Sunday, May 23, 2004

KIEV — Former President George Bush, the latest in a string of prominent American visitors to Ukraine, said last week that what became known as his “Chicken Kiev” speech in 1991 was misunderstood by his critics.

In that speech, delivered in Kiev months before a referendum in which Ukrainians voted to withdraw from the Soviet Union, Mr. Bush cautioned against “suicidal nationalism.”

The remarks subsequently were derided as lacking sufficient resolve against communism and, in any case, had little impact on the referendum, which passed overwhelmingly.

Back in Kiev last week during a European tour to raise support for his son’s re-election campaign, Mr. Bush insisted that both Ukrainians and the Western press had missed his point.

The message he had wanted to send was that Ukrainians should not do “something stupid,” he said. “If your leaders hadn’t acted smartly, there would have been a crackdown” from Moscow.

Mr. Bush told an audience of students and other invited guests that Washington had felt a “sense of relief” when 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence. “What transpired 13 years ago marked a new, hopeful chapter for mankind,” he said.

Like several other recent American visitors, Mr. Bush also called for a free and fair vote in a presidential election scheduled for Oct. 31.

Similar messages have been delivered in recent weeks by U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros, former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Mr. Bush generally was upbeat about the political climate in Ukraine, saying, “I see a country of dramatic change. I get a sense here that things are moving and there’s a lively debate” over Ukraine’s political future.

Some observers speculated that the visit would set the stage for a meeting between the U.S. president and Ukrainian leader Leonid Kuchma.

Despite numerous meetings with his Russian counterpart, President Bush has not met with Mr. Kuchma, partly because of charges that Ukraine sold a high-tech radar system to Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Kiev is hoping such a meeting will take place next month when the two presidents attend the NATO summit in Istanbul. The elder Mr. Bush said he has no influence over his son’s decision, although joked that his wife, Barbara, still does.

Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Brzezinski came at the invitation of Mr. Kuchma’s son-in-law, Ukrainian businessman and parliamentarian Viktor Pinchuk, or institutions associated with him.

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