This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe on April 4, 2005.
TOMORROW IN Boston, the newly minted president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, will receive the John F. Kennedy Award for Freedom. The leader of his nation’s ”orange revolution" who survived first dioxin poisoning and later attempts to steal the election, Yushchenko is certainly an inspiration to those who root for democracy the world over.
When the cheers and speeches are over, however, Yushchenko will return to a country in dire need of reform. The heady days of protest and election will soon seem easy in comparison to tasks he must confront to erase the dangerous legacy of his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.
On the economic front, Yushchenko must not only maintain growth estimated at more than 7 percent over the past few years but also tackle the country’s corrosive corruption. In a nation where more than half of economic activity takes places on the black market, the new president must move aggressively to break up the governing oligarchy. The difficulty of this task is clear when one considers that two of the country’s most prominent businessmen are former President Kuchma’s son-in-law and chief of staff.
Yushchenko’s political challenges are no less severe. He must move immediately to unify his divided nation by working with the pro-Russian populace that is not his natural constituency. Just as 90 percent of voters in Kiev cast their ballots for Yushchenko, 90 percent of voters in the eastern city of Donetsk preferred his opponent. Clearly there is much healing to do.
Yushchenko also faces the unpleasant task of reaching a modus vivendi with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who worked to make sure Yushchenko would never take office. Although Yushchenko has made the right early moves journeying to Moscow to meet with Putin, he faces a tough balancing act to make sure that Russia continues to supply Ukraine with energy while Ukraine continues its move toward joining the European Union.
Yushchenko’s dealings with these problems, however, may pale compared to the aftermath of the 2001 sale to Iran and China of cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The long-rumored deal, confirmed ”with bitterness" last week by Yushchenko, has given Tehran the possibility of doubling the range of its most powerful rockets and, through reverse engineering, the ability to arm missiles with nuclear warheads.
The news of this sale has been greeted around the world with horror and surprise. Only 10 years ago the United States was showering Ukraine with praise and foreign assistance, as Kiev moved publicly to transfer about one-half of its 1,000 nuclear-armed missiles back to Russia and destroy the other half under a US-funded disarmament program. President Clinton called Ukraine a ”friend" and ”partner" and claimed, ”Together we have made the whole world safer from the risk of nuclear war."
Beginning in 2002 President Bush rightly reduced aid to Ukraine as the Kuchma government reversed democratic progress and allegedly shipped a radar system to Saddam Hussein’s regime. But, in need of help in the war on terror, the White House also attempted to maintain cordial relations with Kiev. Ukraine dispatched 1,500 troops to Iraq and, as recently as last year, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld strongly praised Ukraine’s contribution to that fight.
Ukraine’s contribution of soldiers, however, is no fair trade for allowing the shipment of nuclear-capable missiles to Iran and China. This action puts Ukraine just above Pakistan and North Korea. It is an ominous sign in a nation whose defense minister, when asked to explain the apparent disappearance of hundreds of missing missiles, replied simply: ”Unfortunately, strange things happen."
To prevent further strange things from happening, the Bush administration’s top priority should be to provide technical assistance and financial resources to the new Ukrainian government to ensure that all its missiles are secure and scheduled for destruction or transfer. The White House must also move quickly to implement one of the many credible plans designed to help end black market sales of nuclear technology.
The Bush administration should also work with President Yushchenko to ensure that his new government has the support it needs to pursue economic growth, undertake anticorruption measures, and assume a new position vis-à-vis Russia. Yet even now the budget for democracy assistance in Ukraine is under severe threat from right-wing Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Honoring Viktor Yushchenko with an award named after President Kennedy is a meaningful gesture. But the true measure of our commitment to freedom and support for a stable, prosperous, and democratic Ukraine will come in the months and years ahead.
Robert O. Boorstin is the senior vice president for national security and John Lyman is a research associate at the Center for American Progress.