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Ukraine Pushes for Stronger Ties with European Union

The new Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko wants his country to become a member of the European Union. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at Ukraine's hopes to join the EU and the role the United States can play in helping Ukraine politically and economically.

During Ukraine's presidential campaign, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko made clear that if elected, he would press for closer integration with the European Union. Now that he is president, Mr. Yushchenko will try to make good on that promise.

Shortly after his election, Mr. Yushchenko traveled to Strasbourg, France, to address the Council of Europe, where he said, "We see ourselves as Europeans." And he vowed to promote the economic and political reforms necessary for membership in the European Union. For its part, the EU vowed to work with the new president to, in its words, significantly deepen the relationship between the European Union and Ukraine.

Western experts on Ukraine say the new government, with newly confirmed Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, has a long way to go to satisfy the criteria for EU membership. One of those is Frank Sysyn, Director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.

"I don't say the path will be easy and I do not say the door has not been flung open for Ukraine,” he said. “We have seen how hard Turkey has had to work to even get that door open to crack. And in some way, at least from what we can perceive now, Ukraine may find it much easier than Turkey does to meet most of the requirements of the European Community and therefore to make itself a rather desirable candidate."

Experts say even if Ukraine makes itself a desirable candidate, it will take years, if not decades, for the country to become a full member of the European Union (EU).

Roman Szporluk is the Director of Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute. He says the new government can already take steps to help move toward full European integration.

"What the Ukrainian elites and Yushchenko and Timoshenko will want to do is to make the western border of Ukraine as open, as transparent as possible, so that Ukraine can maintain regular commercial, educational, family work ties with its immediate neighbors,” he noted. “The most important country here is Poland."

Poland's president, Alexander Kwasniewski, was instrumental in resolving Ukraine's political crisis following the November presidential elections that were subsequently found to be fraudulent. In a rematch in late December, Mr. Yushchenko defeated then Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and was inaugurated as the new Ukrainian president January 23.

Mark von Hagen, Ukraine expert at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, says Poland and other European countries can help push for Ukraine's EU membership.

"Everyone is trying to tamper down any enthusiasm about any near-term Ukrainian membership in the EU, but certainly not ruling it out,” he explained. “And as long as Poland and Lithuania, especially the new members continue agitating in the EU, I think that there is some hope that before too long some kind of discussions can begin. As long as Ukraine's entry into Europe is not presented as an anti-Russian thing, when it doesn't have to be, that will help the EU members through this kind of EU-Russia problem too."

Experts say Mr. Yushchenko is faced with a delicate balance: on the one hand keeping relations with Moscow on an even keel, while on the other pushing for closer integration with Europe.

During a recent trip to Krakow, U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney congratulated Mr. Yushchenko on his election and said the United States, in his words, supports Ukraine's aspirations to join the institutions that bind the free nations of the West.

Experts say the U.S. has a role to play in helping the Yushchenko government. First and foremost, they say the United States should open its markets to Ukrainian goods. Tied to that, Anders Aslund, Director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says Congress must repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

"It's an amendment to the U.S. trade law of 1974 which demanded an annual review of soviet emigration policies for Jews and if that did not happen, the Soviet Union would not be granted 'most favored nation' [trading] status,” he explained. “And strangely, this amendment that was meant for the Soviet Union, was then applied to all former Soviet Republics that hadn't anything to do with this in the first place."

For his part, Frank Sysyn, Director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, says with the change of government in Ukraine, the United States has a critical role to play.

"It has to find a way to both fulfill its interests and its global interests with Russia, but on the other hand to support the democratic reform in Ukraine,” he added. “And in that way, as the U.S. can also help Russia come to terms with the reality of Ukraine, I think it will be playing a major and very positive role."

In the final analysis, experts say Ukraine alone cannot resolve all the issues related to moving from a post-Soviet country to a full democratic state. They say for such a move to be successful, democratic countries from around the world must provide help to the new Ukrainian government.