Bush Counsels Ukraine's Squabbling Leaders
KIEV, Ukraine -- President Bush may not know much about living in a former Soviet republic struggling to establish a democracy, but he knows a thing or two about political combat. And so he found himself today giving advice to Ukraine's famously squabbling leaders.
President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko have been on-again, off-again allies for years. Together they led the Orange Revolution of 2004 that toppled a pro-Russian government, but they have been quarreling over power ever since. Yushchenko at one point fired Tymoshenko in 2005 and even installed the opponent he forced out in the revolution before she made a comeback about 100 days ago.
The resulting turmoil in Ukraine has soured many people on the revolution and its leaders and made it difficult for the government to make much progress on its promises. It was so bad that Bush scrubbed his hopes of coming to visit in 2006 because it seemed too volatile a situation for the president to parachute into -- especially since he wanted to celebrate Ukraine as an emerging democracy and at times, it has looked so unsettled it was unclear where it was headed.
The two have made an uneasy peace for now and Ukrainian officials point out that, however fractious the last three years have been, at least the political debate has been free and robust and at least it has largely been settled by elections. The soap-opera struggle between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, they say, actually is a sign of democratic health in a country where representative government has little history and past differences were often resolved through violence or corruption.
Still, the tension between the two Ukrainian leaders could be seen in the body language today. During a luncheon at the presidential headquarters, Yushchenko and Bush exchanged toasts. Tymoshenko, dressed in a pink dress with her hair tied in tight braids across the top of her head in her trademark style, sat ramrod straight at the small head table along with the two presidents and their wives. Yushchenko, his face still bearing the scars of the mysterious poisoning inflicted upon him in 2004, kept his attention squarely on the Americans. After Yushchenko's toast, he and Tymoshenko clinked everyone else's glasses and then, finally, each other's stiffly and without smiling. After Bush's toast, Tymoshenko managed a strained smile.
Bush, playing it neutral, met separately one-on-one with both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko and raised the tense relationship with each, according to aides. White House press secretary Dana Perino said they talked "about how internal politics plays a role in healthy democracies." She added: "And the president said we see that in our own country and in Ukraine they are experiencing that as well. But he encouraged them to keep their eye on the big pictures, which is freedom, justice and democracy, and to understand that sometimes people will throw a sharp elbow, but keeping your eye on the big picture is a sign of a healthy society."
-- Peter Baker
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