Monday, December 27, 2004

From America With Love

From America With Love
Ukraine's new first lady knows what freedom really means.

Monday, December 27, 2004 12:01 a.m. EST

In the most peaceful revolution since South Africa ended its apartheid
regime by electing Nelson Mandela president in 1994, Ukraine has just
elected opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko president of the former
Soviet satellite republic. The victory comes for the pro-Western
leader after a dirty campaign that saw him poisoned and only after
hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets to protest
voter-fraud. "We peacefully, beautifully, elegantly and without any
drops of blood changed Ukraine," Mr. Yushchenko told cheering

What many Westerners do not realize, however, is when Mr. Yushchenko
takes the seat of power, at his side will be a tough minded, savvy
American-raised businesswoman. His wife, Kateryna Chumachenko
Yushchenko, is the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who grew up
steeped in the traditions of her ancestral homeland.

Mrs. Yushchenko was raised in suburban Chicago as the daughter of an
electrician and seamstress. During World War II, her parents were
forced to immigrate to Germany and work as slave labor. They came to
the U.S. in 1956 at the invitation of a Ukrainian Orthodox church. She
grew up speaking Ukrainian at home, learning the national dances and
attending a Ukrainian school and Orthodox church. "My parents felt
they had to keep alive the culture and traditions they thought were
being suppressed by the Soviet Union," she told me.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s she worked in the human rights
office of the U.S. State Department. She also worked for the first
President Bush in the Treasury Department. But her dream was always to
help Ukraine become independent. So after the collapse of the Soviet
Union in 1991 she moved to Kiev. Her business degree from the
University of Chicago helped her land a job with KPMG, the U.S.
international auditing company, and she prospered training the
country's economists in Western practices. She met Viktor Yushchenko
when he was part of a delegation of central bankers she brought to
Chicago. "He understood free markets, had a firm faith in God and knew
what the right path for the country should be," she told me. The two
married in 1998, and they now have three children.

It is the strong bond he has with his wife that has helped Mr.
Yushchenko through the tough campaign and it will likely be his
relationship with her that will help him have a successful presidency.
Perhaps the darkest moment for Mr. Yushchenko came this fall when he
was poisoned. At first it seemed to be a case of the flu. His wife
recalls him coming home one night during the presidential campaign and
saying he felt sick. She noticed a strange metallic taste in his mouth
when she kissed him. It turned out to be dioxin, a chemical compound
found in Agent Orange and a well known poison.

Mr. Yushchenko has largely recovered, although the poison has left his
face disfigured and the government has continued a three-year campaign
to discredit him and his wife. After he was poisoned, the state
prosecutor opened an investigation into the incident and then tried
smearing Mr. Yushchenko by claiming he had a disfiguring case of

Tape recordings made by a disgruntled bodyguard for President Leonid
Kuchma show that the president personally ordered a disinformation
campaign against the Yushchenkos. Mr. Yushchenko was portrayed as a
fascist puppet of Western bankers and Kateryna as an active CIA agent.
She responded by winning a libel judgment against a Russian television
station that accused her of disloyalty to Ukraine. But the government
has refused to process her application for Ukrainian citizenship.

Now that Mr. Yushchenko is to become president, it's likely he'll be
able to push through more than his wife's citizenship application. He
helped implement some free-market reforms when he served as prime
minister for 16 months between 1999 and 2001 before being ousted by
hard-liners in Parliament. Now he has a popular mandate at his back as
well as international support, which has only increased with the
success of his "orange revolution." His wife has also proved
invaluable by introducing him to contacts in the West.

All this adds up to a rare opportunity for Mr. Yushchenko. Since its
independence in 1991, Ukraine's 48 million people have seesawed
between forming greater ties with the West or lurching back into
becoming a vassal state of Russia. One out of six people are
ethnically Russian. Still, a clear majority of voters now want the
corrupt, pro-Moscow clique surrounding outgoing President Kuchma out
of the government. Yulia Timoshenko, a charismatic ally of Mr.
Yushchenko, says their time is up. She told reporters: "I think the
key word for them in Sunday's exit polls was 'exit.' "

The challenge will be to move Ukraine towards a free-market economy.
Mrs. Yushchenko makes clear that her husband makes all of his own
political decisions, but she will no doubt be a valuable asset to him.
"She is one of the brightest, most dedicated conservatives I have ever
known," says Bruce Bartlett, a former official in the Treasury
Department under the first President Bush. "Anyone who met Kathy
quickly discovered that creating a free, successful Ukraine was her
primary mission in life, to the exclusion of almost everything else."

Now the challenge facing Ukraine is to make the leap towards becoming
a democratic society truly governed by the rule of law. Mrs.
Yushchenko is realistic about the obstacles facing her husband and his
team. "[Some] people are making a lot of money off the current
system," she told ABC News. "The last thing they want is for the
system to change and for the economy to be a free market economy where
the general population benefits rather than a small group of people at
the top."

Cynics may say that since Ukraine has never been a true democracy,
reforming it will be impossible. But those are the same people who
never predicted that hundreds of thousands of people would fill the
streets of Kiev and other cities and force a new election. Nonetheless
it happened. What happens next is now up to Mr. Yushchenko.

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