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Good Feelings As Clinton Meets With Ukraine Chief Economic Reform, Eliminating Nuclear Weapons Earns Praise

After a tough summit meeting in Moscow that failed to resolve several knotty issues, President Clinton flew here Thursday for a love fest with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the West’s new darling in the former Soviet world.

Clinton hailed Kuchma for embarking on a bold reform program that one U.S. official said “has completely transformed the economic landscape in Ukraine,” where blind resistance to change once made many observers wonder whether the foundering young country could survive.

Describing Ukraine as “a strategically, profoundly important country for the future of Central Europe,” Clinton also praised Kuchma for acting swiftly to remove all nuclear weapons from his country and for signing on to the Partnership for Peace military cooperation program with NATO.

Unlike the contentious discussions Wednesday with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the two-day stopover in Kiev is “not a visit for heavy lifting or substantive issues,” noted Anthony Lake, Clinton’s national security adviser.

Instead, Clinton wants to “celebrate an extremely good year in working with Ukraine,” Lake said.

Kuchma, a former communist industrial baron who ran one of the biggest rocket factories in the former Soviet Union, has turned out to be a delightful surprise for Western leaders since his election as Ukraine’s second president last year.

There were initial doubts that he would proceed with dismantling Soviet nuclear missiles deployed on Ukrainian territory. But more than 350 warheads have been decommissioned and shipped off to Russia since Kuchma took office, and Ukraine is scheduled to be a nuclear-free nation by the end of next year.

He also has launched market-oriented economic reforms, freeing prices from controls and floating the currency’s exchange rate. The budget deficit has been brought down to less than 9 percent of gross domestic product - compared to an anticipated 20 percent.

Kuchma’s ambitious reform effort has won substantial financial backing from the United States and international financial organizations, including $1.5 billion in standby credit from the International Monetary Fund.

The U.S. has committed $700 million in economic and disarmament assistance, making Ukraine the fourth-largest recipient of American aid after Israel, Egypt and Russia.

“An enormous amount remains to be done,” Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said. But Ukrainian economic planners “have a good sense of the issues and a good sense of what they need to do,” Rubin added.

In a meeting on Thursday, Clinton and Kuchma discussed expanding U.S. technical aid for Ukraine, including assistance with tax reform and privatization, Rubin said.

Clinton also promised to help Ukraine obtain the funds needed to completely shut down the Chernobyl atomic power complex and shore up the sarcophagus around Reactor Number 4, which exploded in the world’s worst peacetime nuclear disaster in 1986.