WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine told an American audience Monday that his country is committed to democracy and on a path toward political and economic reform.
On his first trip to the U.S. after becoming prime minister, Yanukovych sought to convince U.S. officials and business leaders that he has strong democratic credentials, even though he was previously identified with efforts to rig the 2004 presidential election.
"There can never be too much democracy in the Ukraine, just as there can never be too much freedom," Yanukovych said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.
Yanukovych's meetings Monday and Tuesday with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and members of Congress were designed in part to discuss Ukraine's economy and its possible entry into the World Trade Organization and NATO.
But more was at stake than that.
"The main goal that Yanukovych is coming with is to establish some credibility with the administration," said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now a senior adviser at the think tank.
In 2004, Yanukovych was seen as a foe of democracy. Western officials expressed outrage at stolen votes that initially helped him win the presidential election. Protesters rose up in what became known as the "Orange Revolution." The country's Supreme Court overturned the election and ordered a new vote, which he lost to his pro-Western rival, Viktor Yushchenko.
Yanukovych was widely discredited, while Yushchenko was praised in the West and given a standing ovation when he addressed the U.S. Congress last year.
But Yanukovych became prime minister after parliamentary elections in March that were declared Ukraine's freest and fairest ever. He now shares power with Yushchenko.
Yanukovych's trip comes after the Ukrainian parliament on Friday ousted the country's foreign and interior ministers, two key allies of Yushchenko. Pro-Western Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk was fired after criticizing Yanukovych's Washington trip and grappling with Parliament about the president's constitutional primacy over foreign policy.
U.S. officials have played down the moves by Yanukovych's party against the ministers as an internal Ukrainian matter. But they have cautioned that Ukraine's democratic development is their primary concern.
"With respect to Ukraine, as with respect to any other country, we certainly want to see those that are elected democratically, govern democratically," said State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey at a briefing Friday.
Despite setbacks for Yushchenko, he has argued that the wrangling between two directly elected power centers — the parliament and the presidency — are indeed signs of democracy.