WASHINGTON – Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko (search) asked Congress to help the former Soviet republic make democratic progress by supporting its entrance into international organizations including NATO and ending Cold War-era trade restrictions.
"Please make this step toward Ukraine. Please tear down this wall," he said Wednesday, echoing President Reagan's 1987 call for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to reunite Germany.
Yushchenko, addressing a joint meeting of Congress (search), said U.S. support is crucial to put his country in "the forefront of prosperous democracies."
Speaking through an interpreter, Yushchenko said his three-day U.S. visit was meant to ring in a new era of relations between Ukraine and the United States (search).
"We seek a new atmosphere of trust, frankness and partnership," Yushchenko said. "The time has come to make real steps toward each other."
In that vein, he sought U.S. support for a host of initiatives.
He asked the United States to back his country's entrance into the European Union, the World Trade Organization and NATO, which he said would spur democratic progress and economic reforms.
Yushchenko, who has pledged to end corruption and is working to loosen Ukraine's historic links with Russia, also pressed lawmakers to exempt his country from 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.
He also asked the United States to cancel restrictions on Ukrainian goods in the U.S. market and to classify his country as having a market-based economy, a move that could ease Ukrainian entrance into the WTO and would make it harder for U.S. companies to win antidumping cases against Ukrainian companies. "The time has come to restore fairness," he said.
In addition, Yushchenko requested that the United States:
—Erect a new shelter over the Chernobyl power plant's destroyed nuclear reactor.
—Pay for educational programs for Ukrainians to study in the United States.
—Waive visa requirements for some visiting Ukrainians, and
—Include Ukraine in a Bush administration program that awards aid to countries based on economic and democratic reforms.
Recalling Reagan's 1989 challenge to Gorbachev regarding the Berlin Wall, Yushchenko said, "I deeply believe that America is again ready for such historic decisions. We do not want any more walls dividing Europe, and I'm certain that neither do you."
President Bush has promised to support Ukraine's bid to join the WTO and to try to persuade Congress to lift remaining trade restrictions, but he has been less committal on Ukraine's bid to join NATO.
As Yushchenko entered the House chamber, lawmakers chanted "Yushchenko," as they waved orange scarves and hats, the color supporters of his candidacy adopted during the Orange Revolution that peacefully ousted the Russian-backed government. Nine members of Bush's Cabinet attended, as did Vice President Dick Cheney.
Addresses by heads of state to joint meetings of Congress are infrequent. However, in 2004, lawmakers welcomed three leaders: Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister of Iraq, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Jose Maria Aznar of Spain.
Elected last fall, Yushchenko is seen by Bush and members of Congress as living proof of Ukraine's desire for democratic change.
The populist politician overcame near-fatal dioxin poisoning 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.
After the election, Yushchenko claimed that the Russian-backed regime of his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, had tried to poison him, which left his once-smooth face sallow and pocked.
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.