Great Expectations

KIEV, Ukraine -- It was a perfect match. A world leader bent on bringing freedom to far corners of the globe, and a hero of a bloodless revolution. A much-maligned superpower in need of a showcase for its democracy-spreading ways, and a young democracy in need of a strong ally. An administration eager to contain Russia's instinctive imperialism, and a former Russian province struggling to loosen Moscow's grip. America and Ukraine, George Bush and Viktor Yushchenko – a world leader and a regional player who each now seem to have a stake in the other's success.

No wonder then than Yushchenko’s trip to the United States last week was nothing short of a triumph. From a meeting in the Oval Office with a beaming Bush to Yushchenko’s address to a joint session of Congress, an honor that only a handful of world leaders have received: even skeptics in Ukraine grudgingly admitted the trip was a breakthrough. Yushchenko’s half-hour speech to Congress – well-written, for once, and filled with lofty turns of phrase clearly geared to an American ear – was interrupted by applause no less than 30 times. Congressmen, many wearing orange ties, chanted "Yushchenko" as the hero of the Orange Revolution finished his speech, recalling the ecstatic atmosphere of Kyiv's snowy Independence Square at the peak of the protests.

Note the contrast with the situation of just two years ago, when organizers of a NATO summit in Prague had to resort to seating the guests according to the French alphabet in order to avoid placing the then president, Leonid Kuchma, who gate-crashed the gathering, beside George Bush. Even Yushchenko's firm resolve to pull out Ukraine's 1,600 troops from Iraq by the year's end – sweetened by a promise to play a prominent role in peacekeeping operations elsewhere – did not dampen his host's spirits. For the U.S. president, it seems, the contribution Ukraine has made to his global "march of democracy" cause by becoming one of its best success stories far outweighs the forthcoming loss of Ukrainian peacekeepers in Iraq.

Realizing perhaps that America's fascination with Ukraine won't last forever, Yushchenko wasted no time pressing his hosts for something more material than standing ovations. In addition to the expected democracy talk and kudos to America for its notable, if auxiliary role in forcing a re-run of Ukraine’s fraudulent election, Yushchenko presented America with a list of rewards he believed were justly his. America duly obliged.

The Ukrainian leader received a firm promise that Washington will lift the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which dates back to Soviet times and restricts America's trade with Ukraine. That is something the previous Ukrainian administration had fruitlessly tried to obtain for years. Also under his belt is America's commitment to clear the way for Ukraine's entry into the World Trade Organization by year's end, an endorsement of Kyiv's NATO membership aspirations, prospects of easier travel to the United States for Ukrainians, and $60 million for safety measures at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The best demonstration perhaps of the new tone of relations between Kyiv and Washington is the bombastic title of the joint declaration by the two presidents: “A New Century Agenda for the Ukrainian-American Strategic Partnership.”

This impressive list of trophies, added to the ones wrested from a more reluctant European Union, has reinforced the overall feeling that Ukraine is no longer thought of in the West as a dreary place that can be left to languish in Russia’s shadow without anyone really caring. The confidence that comes from having a sympathetic ear in the Oval Office, and a superpower genuinely interested in your administration’s success (if only to better demonstrate the virtues of its own foreign policy), has already been reflected in the more assertive tones Ukraine has adopted in its dealings with Russia.

Kyiv’s belligerent noises on the uselessness of pet projects of Moscow’s – such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or the Single Economic Area – would have been unthinkable without a clear realization in Ukraine that membership of more distinguished clubs, such as the WTO and even the EU, is within reach.

But after a series of foreign-policy triumphs, Yushchenko is returning to a far more uncertain situation on the domestic front that will put to the test his credentials as a democrat and economic liberal.

The economy is under strain from munificent social commitments inherited from the previous government that are undroppable as parliamentary elections loom in 2006. Rising food and petrol prices are making headlines, and the government’s threats to impose price caps have already angered Ukraine’s industries. Foreign investors are biding their time, waiting for the outcome of the reprivatization campaign; Yushchenko's assurances that only 30 or so of the most blatantly rigged deals will be reviewed has had only limited success in calming frayed nerves. NTN, a small news channel linked to Yushchenko's election rival Viktor Yanukovych, is doing a reasonable job of trying to portray as an attack on free speech the government's attempts to take back the broadcasting licenses that the channel grabbed under the previous government by bypassing all normal procedures. And the arrest on extortion charges of a leading Yanukovych ally, Donetsk regional council chairman Borys Kolesnykov, has triggered furious protests by the new opposition.

No doubt, Yushchenko has much to show for not even 100 days in office – and the standards set by his predecessor were so low that merely not killing journalists or selling weapons to rogue regimes will be deemed sufficient progress by Western allies. After years of fear and censorship, Ukrainian papers and television are falling over themselves to demonstrate their editorial freedom to the audiences. Arrests have been made in the hitherto moribund case of murdered journalist Georgy Gongadze. Despite a massive social spending spree, the government’s current account seems healthy. Tough action on pervasive tax privileges granted to well-connected businesses under Kuchma and a crackdown on contraband are beginning to pay off. Relations with Russia, albeit far from the back-slapping bonhomie of the Kuchma years, are much closer to normal than one would expect after Moscow’s blatant support for Yanukovych during the election. Kolesnykov’s case, along with recent arrest on bribery charges of a newly appointed district administration chief, give hope that the government is taking its own anti-corruption rhetoric seriously. Most tellingly perhaps, two recent polls have suggested that the public’s trust in state institutions is at its highest level ever, and Yushchenko’s personal rating has even risen since he came to office.

All this should be enough to keep the international and domestic feel-good momentum generated by the Orange Revolution – for now. But Yushchenko must tread carefully, and keep delivering on the express and implicit election promises he made both to his own people and to the international community. For all the fanfare of the joint declaration with America, all the commitments undertaken by Washington are clearly conditional on Ukraine’s progress in crucial areas such as the fight with corruption, media freedom, democratic progress, and economic reform. An embarrassing corruption scandal, a dodgy privatization deal, or another arms-smuggling scandal could spell a quick and painful end to Kyiv’s honeymoon with Washington.

Now that Ukraine has got the world thinking of itself as a young and promising democracy, it will have to act like one – or back it will be in America’s doghouse, with fellow CIS no-hopers for company.