LVIV, Ukraine -- As Ukrainians go to the polls today to elect a new president, the Obama administration is showing signs it is waking up to the importance of Central and Eastern Europe.
It's about time.On a recent trip to Paris, Hillary Clinton spoke in favor of EU and NATO enlargement and said today's elections were "an important step in Ukraine's journey toward democracy, stability and integration into Europe."Those are welcome words in a country that has felt forgotten by Washington. While President George W. Bush was a vocal supporter of Ukraine and Central Europe, the region has felt neglected by President Barack Obama, said Roman Kalytchak, a political science professor at Lviv National University."It's important to know you have someone you can rely on," Kalytchak said. Ukraine needs moral support, he said, in order to overcome challenges such as corruption.With a land mass slightly smaller than the Lone Star State and a population of 46 million (nearly double that of Texas), Ukraine isn't some obscure shoebox of a country that matters only if you're competing in a geography bee. Ukraine borders both the European Union and Russia, and crucial natural gas pipelines run through the country.It's in America's interest to pay more – not less – attention to Central and Eastern Europe."There is a lot of unfinished business in Europe," warned Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington."Central Europe has been and is a dangerous neighborhood; Russia continues to flex its muscles in its periphery."Last fall, Russia simulated a nuclear attack on Poland. And remember Russia's invasion of Georgia?Feeling vulnerable, Ukraine eagerly wants to join Europe.In an op-ed for the Kyiv Post, presidential candidate and Princess Leia look-alike Yulia Tymoshenko wrote: "The choice is simple: a country that embraces European-style democracy and living standards, versus a Ukraine trapped in an ill-defined gray zone between East and West."Tymoshenko – a pro-European who has also been flirtatious with Russia as Western Europe has increasingly ignored Ukraine – is running against a re-branded Victor Yanukovych, the former darling of the Kremlin whose attempt to steal the presidential election in 2004 led to the Orange Revolution.Six years after Ukrainians told the West they were eager to join the free and democratic club of nations, little progress has been made on membership in the European Union or NATO.Obama had hoped to let the European Union handle Eastern Europe, but the Franco-German-dominated EU remains diplomatically impotent and has left Ukraine drifting.The U.S. has to take the lead in promoting further Western integration for countries like Ukraine. If we don't reach out to Ukraine, Russia will. That'd be a missed opportunity; there is tremendous potential here.Stagnant Old Europe is a museum – unable to integrate immigrants, unable to take leadership and unable to project power. But here in New Europe, people are hungry for change.Oleh Berezyuk, director of the Lviv mayor's office, said Ukraine is experiencing a "great generational shift," saying young Ukrainians "have drive" and are "full of energy, potential and an urge to live a better life."That's not the case in Western Europe, which is about as energetic and dynamic as a retirement community."In France, they already have their place in the world and are OK with it. But in Central Europe, many young people want to change their lives, change their place in the world," observed Lytvynov Olesandr, a university student in Lviv.That type of hard-working spirit pays off. Just look at Poland.Under the headline "Poland's strong economy: From horse power to horsepower," The Economist recently chronicled Poland's impressive economic performance: It was the only European economy to experience growth last year.As evidence of the rising importance of New Europe, the article reports: "Germany now claims that it wants its relations with Poland to be as close as they are with France."And last month, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told The Financial Times: "Who would have thought we would see the day when the Polish economy is talked about with greater respect than the German economy?"With ample support for much-needed political reforms, a Ukraine firmly integrated in the West could have the potential for similar success. When I stopped by Tymoshenko's Lviv campaign headquarters, deputy campaign manager Yavorska Iryna confidently told me: "Ukraine is the future of Europe."It can be, if we give Ukraine the attention it needs.The U.S. has a lot on its plate, but ignoring Central and Eastern Europe now would be shortsighted. The future of Europe is not in tired, Old Europe in the West, but in a dynamic New Europe in the East, a Europe the U.S. should have a hand in shaping.