The major event of last week was Ukrainian Prime Minister Victor Yushchenko's official visit to the United States, where he held meetings with US President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Vice President Al Gore and other high-ranking officials. It was a four-day trip to Washington, DC, which aimed to clarify, and maybe even solve, several very important problems between the US and Ukraine.
Talks between the two countries' leaders were mainly concentrated on three topics: the closing of the Chernobyl atomic power station, conducting economic reforms, and the protection of intellectual property. The Chernobyl power station is to be closed by the end of the year; however, Prime Minister Yushchenko tried to underline not only the importance of the station shutting down but also its security afterwards. Concerning the question of intellectual property, it was decided that Ukraine should introduce norms immediately, since the country is considered to be one of the biggest pirates of Western software and CDs. As Yushchenko stressed in an interview given to Ukrainian journalists, those questions would be discussed once again, during an official visit to Ukraine by Bill Clinton planned for 2 June.
Despite intense meetings with high-ranking American officials, the main goal of the governmental trip was for Yushchenko to negotiate with the leaders of the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ukraine is now currently going through a complicated period in its relations with the two international creditors. Last September, the new loan program for Ukraine was frozen, due to doubts by the World Bank and IMF about the usage of credits by Ukraine.
An investigation and a preliminary audit of the foreign reserves of the National Bank of Ukraine launched earlier this year have found that reserves were overstated by USD 713 million between 1996 and 1998. Owing to this, Ukraine was able to receive a USD 200 million credit from the IMF, which it might not have got if it had not overstated its foreign reserves.
On 4 May, the first results of the audit were made public, confirming previous speculations. However, this audit did not find any evidence of the illegal usage of the funds by Ukrainian side. Such conclusions gave Yushchenko a new chance to make American officials and international financial authorities believe that mistakes in the calculations of Central Bank foreign reserves were not intentional. Once again, in an interview with CNN, Yushchenko presented Ukraine's interpretation of the problem, which came down to the differences between the accounting system used by the Bank in 1996 and 1997 and the new accounting practices of Ukraine.
Despite all of the serious and unpleasant issues raised by the American side during the official visit, Prime Minister Yushchenko told journalists at Boryspil airport upon his return to Urkaine that he was satisfied with the results of the trip.
More good news: travel regulations for foreign visitors are to be relaxed. Prime Minister Yushchenko signed a resolution on 5 May, before his trip to the USA. According to the new regulations, the government will abolish the necessity of getting an invitation letter before applying for a visa. This will come in effect for citizens of the European Union, the USA, Canada and Japan.
At present, Ukraine has visa-free travel agreements with practically all countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe. At the same time, the Czech Republic and Slovakia will soon publish a list of countries with restricted travel possibilities. Earlier this year, both countries introduced laws making it necessary that Ukrainian citizens get visas before entering, starting June 2000. Ukraine has promised to reciprocate this gesture.
With the simplification of visa procedures, the Prime Minister hopes to introduce Western norms and standards for travel and communication. However, many other things have to be done before Ukraine can become, if not an equal partner, then at least a friendly place for foreign business and investments. The lack of such conditions in the country was highlighted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a London-based organisation. In its annual report, it presented evaluations of business conditions in different countries. This year, research was conducted for 60 countries, using both economic and political criteria. Ukraine ranked at the bottom of the list, with Iran and Nigeria. Only Iraq ranked lower.
Natalya Krasnoboka, 12 May 2000