A Fair Election In A Key Country

WASHINGTON, DC -- The struggle for democratic self-rule on Russia's borders may be a far bigger story in the long run than anything happening in the Islamic world.

Ukraine parliament votes being counted

On the surface, Ukraine's election is a foreign policy setback for the United States, and some analysts are already reading it that way.

Yet, an important goal has been reached. That huge country, a doorway to Russia, has had a free, fair election without intimidation from its gigantic neighbor, which fears an infection of such free spirit.

What a change this is for Ukraine.

In 2004, international observers found Ukraine's national election to be a complete ballot-stuffing fraud, rigged with the complicity of Russia's KGB successors to give a victory to Viktor Yanukovych, the handpicked choice of the old communist-era bosses from Kiev.

Street demonstrations in Kiev, called the "Orange Revolution," forced Ukraine to hold a second election for president. That brought to power a popular reformer, Viktor Yuschenko, whose face was mysteriously scarred from dioxin poisoning by an unknown assailant.

Now, two years later, Ukraine has held an election for who gets to organize a new government. This time, Yanukovych and his pro-Russian eastern Ukraine party came out on top, but barely, with 27 percent of the vote. The reason he won at all is that the Orange Revolution reformers were divided and squabbling.

A bloc led by Yulia Tymoshenko, a blond-braided populist who was fired as prime minister by Yuschenko last summer, came in second. And Yuschenko's party fell to third place, a humiliation that now makes his future look dim.

It's always possible that the Orange bloc can get back together again to organize a government. But for now democracy is producing a back alley brawl between the pro-Western orange cats that may hand things right back to the pro-Russian blue bears.

All kinds of bad things can be read into this for the West. Yuschenko had been steering Ukraine toward NATO membership and a closer alliance with Washington. Now, that momentum is probably stopped.

Tymoshenko is cooler to NATO. Yanukovych wants to revive Kiev's alliance with Moscow and Belarus, the autocratic state to its north whose ruler has just rigged another election and put down an uprising with ample use of the truncheon.

But Celeste Wallender, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, doubts there will be much change in Ukrainian foreign and military policy because Yuschenko will remain president.

Under the constitution, he will still get to pick the ministers of defense and foreign affairs. The prime minister, who will now be chosen by the new parliament instead of the president, in turn chooses most of the other cabinet ministers.

Wallender noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately congratulated the Belarusian president after his recent fraudulent election. But as long as free and fair elections are being demanded and held in Ukraine, they remain a threat to the system that has made Putin who he is.

That is why the overriding, long-term interest of the United States was in seeing that this second round of elections came off cleanly, even though they did not produce the result that some wished.

If Yanukovych becomes prime minister, he could turn Ukraine's eyes inward and eastward. But, with a 27-percent voting bloc, he cannot assert the kind of unbridled power that he would have had as president.

Yuschenko blew this election by sacking Tymoshenko. She was said to be very difficult to get along with. He compounded the error by trying to work out a natural gas pipeline deal with Putin that looked suspicious.

Both of them are clumsy at politics, but the Orange revolution is still a fresh breeze. Mistakes like those happen, gulp.

Those who hold similar values to Americans are still in the majority, for now. Groups like the Council of Europe, Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe and European Union have all given high marks to this election, despite its wacky, upside-down result.

And Putin is still nervous.

Source: Media General News