Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The United States isn’t the only country having a presidential election in the next few days. There is also an important vote coming up in Ukraine on Oct. 31. The election there will be far more momentous for that country than ours will be for us. Whoever wins here, our basic policies will not change fundamentally. In Ukraine, by contrast, the election could be revolutionary.

Like many of the former republics of the old Soviet Union, Ukraine has struggled, politically and economically. It has no history of either democracy or self-government, having been a vassal of Russia long before the communist takeover. And because of communism, Ukraine’s economy never developed naturally so as to exploit those industries and businesses most appropriate for its location and resources. Under central planning, production was guided by political whim, with the result that much of the industry located in Ukraine at independence was inherently unviable in a free market.

Ukraine also suffers in other ways from the communist legacy. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is still a mess, and the nation has never fully recovered from the awful famine inflicted upon it by Josef Stalin in the 1930s that is estimated to have killed as many as 10 million people — more than died in the Holocaust.

However, other former Soviet republics and even Russia itself have also had to deal with the consequences of communism, and most have done a better job than Ukraine has done. This is primarily because of abysmal leadership. Its current president, Leonid Kuchma, is highly corrupt and a thug as well. There is strong evidence that he may have had a journalist killed a few years ago for looking too deeply into his affairs. Fortunately, Mr. Kuchma is not running for re-election. But he is backing someone — Viktor Yanukovych — who looks like his clone.

Thankfully, there is an alternative. Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister and head of the central bank, is leading a reform bloc that has a good chance of winning if the election isn’t stolen from him — or worse. Just a few weeks ago, it appears that he was deliberately poisoned in an effort to thwart his campaign.

As it happens, I know Mr. Yushchenko’s wife, Katherine Chumachenko, an American of Ukrainian descent. She and I met in the late 1980s when she was working in the human rights bureau at the State Department. Later, we worked together at the White House, where she was in the Office of Public Liaison, and the Treasury Department, where she worked in the executive secretary’s office.

Kathy — she is now known as Kateryna — is one of the brightest, most dedicated conservatives I have ever known. She has a MBA from the University of Chicago and is well versed in that school’s free market economics tradition. The first time we ever met was at a Heritage Foundation event.

Anyone who met Kathy quickly discovered that the liberation of Ukraine from communist tyranny was her primary mission in life, to the exclusion of almost everything else. So it was no surprise to me when she moved to Kiev soon after it broke free of Moscow’s control in 1991. I helped get her a position there with KPMG, an American consulting company, where she trained Ukrainians in Western methods of banking, accounting and other fundamentals of a market economy.

Kathy married Mr. Yush-chenko five years ago, while he was still running the central bank. In that position, he was one of the few Ukrainians who was trusted by foreign investors. He has a reputation for honesty as well as competence — the former perhaps being more important than the latter, given the widespread corruption in Ukraine. A new report from Transparency International ranks Ukraine as one of the most corrupt nations on Earth.

In December 1999, Mr. Yushchenko was named prime minister. By all accounts, he did an excellent job, helping to implement economic and political reforms. This did not endear him to President Kuchma or the oligarchs who have robbed the country blind, so he was sacked in April 2001. Since then, he has been a member of Ukraine’s parliament, where he has continued to press for reform.

Ukraine should naturally be aligned with Poland and other Eastern European countries that have implemented reforms and prospered in the post-communist era, becoming strong allies of the United States in the war against terrorism. Only its own rotten leadership has held it back. If Mr. Yushchenko wins, its promise will be much closer to becoming a reality. Regretfully, if he loses, it could fall even further behind.

The vote on Sunday is unlikely to produce a winner. More than likely, Messrs. Yushchenko and Yanukovych will meet again in a runoff three weeks later. That vote will determine Ukraine’s future for many years to come.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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