14 August 2007

Another election in danger

An understandable focus on Russia has led the West to neglect events in the second-most-important ex-Soviet republic. Though much smaller on the map, Ukraine is one-third Russia's size by population (at 48 million vs. 148 million), and even if the West has underestimated its significance, the Putin regime never has.

Independent since the break-up of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine was ruled by a Soviet-style oligarchy until the Orange Revolution of 2004, when mass demonstrations against a rigged election forced the oligarchs' candidate for President, Viktor Yanukovich, to yield to the reformist candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovich's party, the Party of Regions, retained a majority in Parliament, producing a divided government. Conflicts between the Party of Regions and the reformists came to a head earlier this year, with both sides eventually agreeing on a new Parliamentary election on September 30 to resolve their differences.

Now it seems the oligarchs are up to their old tricks. The reformist forces are a coalition of two parties: Our Ukraine, headed by Yushchenko, and the Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT). The Central Election Commission, dominated by the Party of Regions, has refused to register the BYuT's candidates on a technicality -- and the reformists are camping in the streets again to protest what looks like yet another blatant attempt to steal an election.

What may seem like a confusing struggle in a distant land actually matters a great deal. The survival or failure of Western-style democracy in a major European country is an important question. And what happens in Ukraine will influence events in Russia. The Putin regime is alarmed at its close neighbor's democratization and pro-Western stance; reversing this trend and restoring the oligarchy there are a core Kremlin goal (it's widely believed that the Russian regime was behind an attempt to murder Yushchenko by dioxin poisoning in 2004). If a restoration of the oligarchy in Ukraine ultimately tilts the country back toward Russia and away from the West, this would greatly strengthen a power which at present is hostile to us. Perhaps more importantly, it would mean a victory for Putin's policy of trying to assert dominance over Russia's neighbors -- and it is very important to deny him any such victory, since the only way that Russia will ever be rid of Putin's dangerous regime is if the Russian people themselves come to see it as a failure.

It would be tragic indeed if the struggle to implant democracy in the unpromising soil of the Middle East distracted the US from supporting it in a place where it has a real chance to flourish.

Update: As it turns out, the refusal to register BYuT candidates was quickly reversed -- but one would be foolish not to expect further attempts at dirty tricks.

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