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Ukrainian Head, Symbol of Reform, High on Clinton's Foreign Agenda

In US visit, Kuchma seeks more aid to keep free-market reforms going

A VISIT to Washington this week by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma will showcase one of the most significant foreign-policy achievements of the post-cold-war era.

Less than a year ago, the impoverished former Soviet republic, which gained independence in 1991, was a bastion of reactionary economics and an arsenal of dangerous nuclear weapons. But prodded by financial aid and encouragement - most of both from the United States - the central European nation has embarked on a new course. Mr. Kuchma, once the head of a state-run missile factory, has become a champion of economic reform, nudged toward a free market by pledges of $4 billion from Western nations.

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In a dramatic development last week, meanwhile, Ukraine's parliament gave its approval to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), thus agreeing to relinquish the third-largest collection of missiles and warheads in the world.

``With the nuclear issue behind us, relations with Ukraine are at a new stage,'' says a State Department official.

During a two-day visit, starting today and capped by a state dinner at the White House tomorrow, most of the talk will be about steps to rescue an economy plagued by high inflation, plummeting output and wages, food shortages, and near bankruptcy.

The stakes are high: A CIA National Intelligence Estimate, prepared last year, warned that in a worst-case scenario economic troubles and ethnic strife could plunge Ukraine into civil war, possibly inviting Russian intervention.

``The guy is up on the high wire and needs help,'' says a senior Clinton administration official of Kuchma, whose nation of 52 million has become increasingly important to the US.

The US has already played a key role in mobilizing Western aid to buttress incipient economic reforms. President Clinton has personally corresponded with European leaders, urging them to translate pledges into actual commitments and has helped convince Russia and Turkmenistan to continue providing oil and gas to Ukraine despite arrearages on current debts to those nations.

During Kuchma's visit, US officials are expected to announce additional aid to the former Soviet republic and sign agreements with Ukraine calling for, among other things, cooperation in the areas of space and science. One senior US official describes last week's vote on the NPT as ``truly historic.'' The way for parliamentary approval was cleared by Kuchma's effectual lobbying efforts, memories of the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Ukranian city of Chernobyl, and pledges of $234 million by 14 Western nations and the European Community to help cover the huge costs of dismantlement.

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Administration officials are quick to praise the accomplishments of Kuchma's four brief months in office. Kuchma, in turn, has credited the US with playing a major role in mobilizing Western aid, including $700 million promised by the US itself.

A number of US officials, including Vice President Al Gore, have traveled to Ukraine to encourage reforms and adherence to the NPT. ``It is one of the president's most significant foreign policy accomplishments,'' says the Clinton official.

Kuchma will also talk with business leaders and officials of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund about trade, aid, and investment. He addressed the United Nations General Assembly over the weekend.

The US visit will enhance Kuchma's growing reputation ``as a decisive, forward-looking, reformist leader,'' says the Clinton official. ``It should strengthen his position and convey the support and respect the US has for him.''

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