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Congress welcomes Ukraine's leader

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday that “a civil society has matured in Ukraine” and asked for economic support.
Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, lower left, acknowledges the applause of U.S. lawmakers as he addresses a joint session of Congress Wednesday.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, seen as living proof of the former Soviet republic’s desire for democratic change, told the U.S. Congress Wednesday that “a civil society has matured in Ukraine” and asked for economic support to spur further progress.

“Our goal is to place Ukraine among prosperous democracies,” Yushchenko said, speaking through an interpreter. Addressing a joint meeting of Congress, he said his three-day visit was meant to ring in a new era of relations between Ukraine and the United States.

“We do not seek only a thaw in the frosty relations of the past. We seek a new atmosphere of trust, frankness and partnership,” Yushchenko said.

As Yushchenko entered the House chamber, lawmakers waved orange scarves and hats, the color supporters of his candidacy adopted during the Orange Revolution that peacefully ousted the Kremlin-backed government, and chanted “Yushchenko.” Nine members of President Bush’s Cabinet attended as did Vice President Dick Cheney, who wore an orange tie.

Yushchenko thanked the United States for backing his candidacy and the ouster of the pro-Russian government, saying the U.S. support was “clear and unambiguous. The U.S. condemned fraud and upheld Ukrainian’s right to freely elect their government.”

NATO entry sought
The Ukrainian president also sought U.S. lawmakers’ support for his country’s entrance into the European Union, the World Trade Organization and NATO, which he said would give his country new opportunities and help it continue on the path of democracy.

Reminding lawmakers of President Reagan’s efforts to unite Germany in 1989, Yushchenko asked for the United State’s support for Ukraine’s European aspirations. “We do not want any more walls in Europe, and I am certain that neither do you,” he said. “The time has come to make real steps toward each other.”

He pressed lawmakers to exempt Ukraine from Cold War-era restrictions that tie U.S. trade with the former Soviet states to emigration rights and democratic advances. A bill to do that was introduced in the Senate shortly after Yushchenko took office in January.

“Please make this step toward Ukraine. Please tear down this wall,” he said.

The populist politician overcame near-fatal dioxin poisoning last fall and won office over a Kremlin-backed candidate after a popular uprising in which masses of supporters camped out in Kiev and forced a second vote in a disputed election.

Receives Kennedy award
During his U.S. visit, Yushchenko was honored with this year’s John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, presented annually to public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the consequences.

The slain president’s brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, said the Ukrainian recipient’s actions inspired those struggling for democracy across the globe.

“At a critical moment in his nation’s history, he took a strong and courageous stand for what he knew was right. He risked his life, and nearly lost it, in the ongoing struggle for democracy in Ukraine,” Kennedy, D-Mass., said.

After the election, Yushchenko claimed that the Russian-backed regime of his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, had tried to assassinate him. The poisoning during last fall’s presidential election left his once-smooth face sallow and pocked, and it took him off the campaign trail.

For months, he suffered from liver and pancreas troubles and severe back pain. Last week, Yushchenko said investigators were closing in on those responsible for the poisoning.