Another Democracy Neglected

SAN FRANCISCO, USA -- In his second inaugural address, in January 2005, President Bush declared a new, cardinal goal for his administration, "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture."

Immediately, his critics began calling this a subterfuge -- pulling an evergreen issue out of the diplomatic handbook to shift the focus from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

No matter the actual motivation, after 2 1/2 years, dozens of speeches and hundreds of millions of dollars have been devoted to this effort. So it might be worthwhile to look at the results by focusing on one country: Ukraine.

It has turned into a poster child for the flawed premise of Bush's paint-by-numbers approach to encouraging democratic transitions in authoritarian states: Hold an election, celebrate its successful completion -- then move on.

In fact, just a few months after Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," in late 2004, the State Department announced it was cutting foreign assistance for Ukraine because it had "moved toward graduation." Within a year, Ukraine had descended into political chaos.

Does that sound familiar? Of course Iraq is the most infamous example. After the first Iraqi election in January 2005, President Bush effused: "The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East."

Now, of course, Iraq is burdened with a dysfunctional, sectarian government that has proved to be incapable of enacting even the most modest political reforms. Not even the spin in the White House benchmarks report this week could change that.

Lebanon -- another state Bush described as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East -- again is teetering on the edge of civil war.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban, thrown out of power in the American invasion almost six years ago, are back and growing stronger by the week, threatening the American-backed government of Hamid Karzai.

And then there's the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where the Bush administration pushed the Palestinians to hold elections -- and then immediately set out to undermine the party that won, Hamas.

Now, of course, Hamas has seized Gaza, and the Bush administration is embracing Fatah, the corrupt, unpopular ruler of the West Bank.

It's hard to find a place where the administration's democracy initiative is not in trouble.

In Ukraine, the United States began spending several million dollars a month in 2003. Government contractors trained citizens to form opposition political parties and stage popular uprisings.

As an example, Washington paid one Vermont-based organization, the Institute for Sustainable Communities, $11 million to help bring about a "fundamental cultural shift" in Ukraine, as the institute put it, "from a passive citizenry under an authoritarian regime to a thriving democracy with active citizen participation."

Sure enough, after the United States had spent $58 million on efforts such as these, the newly trained citizens of Ukraine staged a popular uprising in the fall of 2004.

They demanded, and won, new elections to overturn the fraudulent vote that had elected Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych as president. He was widely regarded as a stooge of Moscow.

The popular, pro-Western opposition candidate, Viktor A. Yushchenko, took his place.

Washington crowed with delight. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell flew to Kiev for the inauguration. Chalk one up for Bush's democracy drive.

From there, the White House turned its attentions to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Ukraine had been taken care of -- or so it seemed.

Back in Kiev, meanwhile, Yushchenko found himself at the head of a government with dysfunctional democratic institutions, no effective agencies or institutions allowing him to reform the education system, health care or other government services.

None of that had been needed in a Soviet-era autocratic regime.

It took only months for his government to descend into confusion, chaos and perpetual political imbroglios. Eventually Yushchenko found himself with little choice but to appoint his nemesis, Yanukovych, as prime minister.

That only worsened matters. Finally, in May, Yushchenko and Yanukovych agreed to hold new elections, in September. Yanukovych, thrown out of office just three years ago, could easily win.

Is this the Bush administration's fault? No. But Washington largely lost interest in Ukraine after the glorious, American-funded revolution. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stopped by once in 2005, to buck up Yushchenko. Otherwise Ukraine languished on its own.

Had the administration spent even half as much time, energy and resources on helping the new president as it did unseating the old one, perhaps the outcome might have been different.

As it turned out, Ukraine's experience reverberated through the region. Leaders of nearby states, including Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Azerbaijan, began cracking down on foreign funded pro-democracy groups. Russia passed a new law that virtually shut them down.

During his first presidential campaign, Bush famously said he did not believe the United States should be involved in "nation building." Given his record since, we all might wish that he had held his ground.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle


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