Now that the pyrotechnics of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution have burnt out, President Viktor Yushchenko has just over a year to convince his countrymen that the rule of law and free markets are better than dictatorship and poverty. When the Ukrainian visits here next week, President Bush and Congress can help him make that case. The stakes in this battle over political identity are high: If Yushchenko succeeds, 50 million Ukrainians will take a big step toward reforming the country’s economic, legal, and political systems and transcending their Soviet past. If Yushchenko fails, the authoritarian forces arrayed against him—the security services, the old-time nomenklatura, the Kremlin—will dominate in next year’s parliamentary elections. Yushchenko’s former rival, Viktor Yanukovich, who remains popular in eastern Ukraine, will then become a major force in the parliament, or Rada; the secret police will live on; and the seedy “privatizations” of the 1990s will not be revisited. A new regime, a conglomeration of different-hued holdovers from the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet eras, will return its citizen-subjects to subject-citizens and steer the ship of state back into the Russian “near abroad.” America will have truly lost Ukraine. This, at least, is the fear of many who camped out in Kiev’s tent city and flooded the Independence Square in the bitter cold of November and December to demand a new politics. The leaders of the Yushchenko government are too diplomatic to issue thinly veiled public threats about what will happen if the United States doesn’t come to the rescue. But everyone in the White House, Congress, and State Department knows what they want—repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik trade measure, which barred the Soviet Union from gaining Most Favored Nation trade status because of restrictions on Jewish emigration, and which remains in effect for most former Soviet states; market-economy designation care of the U.S. Department of Commerce; and entry into the World Trade Organization. All of the above amount to a single, all-encompassing objective: access to international markets, which translates into more money, jobs, and admission to the much-vaunted “international community.” Admission to the international community, to post-Soviets, means never rejoining (or being forced to rejoin) Moscow’s sphere of influence. Should Yushchenko stumble, Ukrainian officials insist, it will be that much tougher to convince voters that democracy pays. “If, for example, we fail to reach these very concrete points of a road map, it will be a disappointment,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Boris Tarasuyk said in a recent interview. “That will mean those who supported President Yushchenko will say, ‘What did you do?’ The expectations are very high.”It is Jackson-Vanik that matters most, at least in some symbolic sense, to Ukrainians. Kiev would have liked to be “graduated” from Jackson-Vanik by the time Yushchenko showed up at the White House on April 4. The gears of government move too slowly for that to happen, but realistically the government could lift Jackson-Vanik from Ukraine by summer. This would give Yushchenko a big political victory and facilitate entry into the WTO. No one—not even in Yanukovich’s base of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine—could deny that the democratic reformers had delivered. Granted, there are good reasons for not lifting Jackson-Vanik. There are political interests: U.S. lawmakers like holding on to the trade provision because it gives them leverage when haggling with Ukraine or other former Soviet governments. There is a religious-historical argument: Jewish organizations fear that synagogues, cemeteries, and other communal properties stolen by the Soviets (and subsequently turned over to the post-Soviet regime) won’t be returned to Ukrainian Jews. And there is some concern in diplomatic circles that graduating Ukraine but not Russia will alienate President Vladimir Putin, whose nuclear arsenal and ties to Tehran mean more to the United States than Viktor Yushchenko with his orange scarf and American wife. But these concerns are overshadowed by the good that can come from helping Yushchenko—like democratic uprisings in Belarus, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and even Iran; the resurgence of a Russian reform movement; and, of course, the health and happiness of the Ukrainian people themselves. It’s true that losing Jackson-Vanik means Americans won’t be able to force Ukraine, say, to open up poultry markets. But international democratic movements trump the narrower concerns of a congressman looking out for his constituents. Naturally, members of Congress, who live in perpetual fear of the next election despite the near certainty that they’ll be re-elected, must defend their turf—against NAFTA or military-base closings or shady trading practices in the former Soviet Union. Still, this doesn’t mean they’re right. The national interest—fostering a democratic trading partner in Ukraine—must override the more parochial concerns of a particular congressional district or state. And it’s true that Jews have reason to question Ukrainian good will. This is the land, after all, of Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, the 1966 novel (based on a true story) about Yakov Bok, a Jewish employee at a brick factory in pre-revolutionary Kiev accused for no reason other than his religion of ritualistic murder. This is the same country that produced able and willing concentration-camp guards to man the Nazi death machine. This is a place that remains, in its culture and religion and its collective comprehension of Otherness, mired in a medieval anti-Semitism. But that’s something of a caricature. Since 1991, the Ukrainian government, like governments across the former Communist world, has dramatically improved relations with local Jewish communities. And, more important, it is democracy and capitalism—by thrusting different peoples together in a marketplace of goods and services and conflicting or complementary political interests—that will help or force Ukraine to move beyond its ancient hatreds. Finally, there’s little doubt that graduating Ukraine from Jackson-Vanik while leaving Russia behind will roil U.S.-Russian relations. But the facts on the ground have changed, and U.S. policy should reflect that. Russia is deeply ambivalent about democracy, while Ukraine has embraced it. Besides, denying Russia graduation from Jackson-Vanik carries no economic impact: Washington will almost certainly continue to grant Moscow yearly waivers. This is the middle ground. It’s not the same as kicking Russia out of the G-8, as Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman have proposed; it is a signal that WTO membership, which Russia really wants, remains a distant possibility.
When Yushchenko comes to Washington, he will receive a triumphant welcome. The Ukrainian president is expected to address a joint session of Congress and meet with the adoring Ukrainian-Americans who flocked to his cause. He will be treated like the great and noble domino who set off an explosion of popular movements in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.
But if the White House views Yushchenko as something more than a democratic motif, a scar-faced vindication of President Bush’s free-people, free-market gospel, if the Americans truly wish for the Ukrainian to succeed, they must give him every bit of support they can. They should repeal Jackson-Vanik. They should help Yushchenko convince his people that they were right to tear down the old regime.