Ukraine Needs The West's Support

KIEV, Ukraine -- When Ukraine captured the world's imagination in 2004, waves of orange-clad protestors shook off Soviet cobwebs and ushered in democracy. From afar, the first presidential election since those dramatic events looks like a sorry epilogue.

The Maidan in Kiev. A European democracy sits uncomfortably close to Russia.

President Viktor Yushchenko, who survived near fatal poisoning to lead what became the Orange Revolution, was humiliated in last week's first round of voting. His 5.5% tally was "kefir-like," went a joke, meaning that it was around the fat content of the local yogurt. To add insult, the leading vote-getter was the loser in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych. The so-called pro-Moscow candidate who tried to steal that vote with help from Russia's Vladimir Putin is the favorite in the runoff a fortnight away.

As the election shows, Ukrainians are fed up with shambolic Orange leadership, economic hardship (GDP fell 15% last year), and entrenched corruption. As deep, and more dangerous, may be the disillusionment in the West. Washington and Brussels suffer from what officials in both places call "Ukraine fatigue."

Before anyone rushes to declare the Orange Revolution dead and Kiev destined to return to Moscow's embrace, a distinction needs to be made. Disappointment with politicians doesn't mean Ukrainians have soured on political freedom. Look closer at this sprawling (the size of Germany and Britain, combined) country of 46 million to behold a genuine, if still shallow, democracy.

This is a minor miracle. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new divide sunders Europe. On one side are free nations safely behind the walls of the West's elite clubs, the European Union and NATO, or about to hop over. To the east, from Belarus to the Caucasus and Central Asia, stretches an authoritarian wilderness. In this inhospitable terrain sits Ukraine.

It remains strategically critical. A stable, prosperous and free Ukraine ensures Russia can't rebuild its regional empire; it'd also be a teachable counterexample to the deadening hand of Putinism for their Slavic cousins up north. The press is free and diverse and political parties vibrant.

At all times of the year, protestors hurl abuse at their ministers or parliamentarians along Kiev's central Hrushevsky Street. Try to find such scenes on Red Square. Russian oligarchic elites who handpick their leaders hate the Ukrainian, and across the Black Sea the Georgian, experiments with free elections for good reason.

The first round was the cleanest vote to date in Ukraine, with no significant fraud. In contrast with 2004, no one tried—so far—to murder any candidate. No one knows for sure—a marvel for this region—who'll win the Feb. 7 runoff. Mr. Yanukovych leads Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Orange leader famous for that braid of blonde hair, but her charisma and campaigning mojo could yet close the gap.

Concerns about democratic backsliding here overlook the ability of people to change. As a society, Ukrainians have picked up the habit of chucking the bums out. Its elites, meanwhile, have also learned that elections aren't life or death contests that inevitably lead to the widescale redistribution of property.

Monosyllabic and gruff, Mr. Yanukovych comes from the Sovietized industrial east—or, as in Ms. Tymoshenko's colorful barb, "the Stone Age"—and plays the part. Yet he looks like a different candidate than in 2004, more polished and confident. He tells Western ambassadors he used to be too afraid to meet that he won't sell out his country to Moscow and that he needs their support as leverage against a pushy Russia.

For that matter, Ms. Tymoshenko also surprised the world. Before turning heroine to Ukraine's nationalist west, she was a shady, Russian-speaking gas baroness who made billions in the early post-Soviet years.

So full of contradictions, Ukraine eludes easy tags. Former President Leonid Kuchma wrote a book titled, "Ukraine Is Not Russia." Ukraine also isn't Poland, the other former sovereign in these lands. For centuries though, Poland was the bridge to the West, helping explain why Ukraine's political culture resembles Europe more than Eurasia, inclined to compromise and defend its freedoms.

Even the frequently mentioned divisions between Russian-speaking eastern and nationalist western Ukraine—which led the CIA in 1992 to predict civil war—are a source of unrecognized strength. Power and wealth are dispersed too widely for any would-be czar or commissar to grab Ukraine by the throat. The next generation of politicians who emerged with this election has been able, in the meantime, to appeal in all regions.

In the short run, Ukraine needs to get through the vote without fraud or chaos. Some 20,000 Yanukovych supporters are camped down in Kiev in case the vote doesn't go their man's way and he calls them to the streets. Ms. Tymoshenko has teams of lawyers ready to challenge the result in courts, the weakest institutional link in Ukraine. Best case scenario is a clear outcome, the process the victor.

Once in power, either of these candidates could be tempted to try to quash the press and freedoms in the name of "stability." This worst case scenario is hard, as parliament remains strong and voters assertive, but not impossible to imagine.

This should be the cue for the West. Today Ukraine, still the biggest piece of the puzzle in the ex-U.S.S.R., is out of fashion in Washington and Brussels. The well-worn path taken westward by its Central European neighbors isn't considered right for it.

On taking office, Barack Obama outsourced relations with Ukraine and Georgia to Joe Biden, refusing to pay either a visit. NATO is off the table. The EU suffers from an acute case of strategic myopia, seizing on any excuse—and Ukrainians provide all too many—to slam the door shut.

Better ideas are heard from diplomats who want to "press the reset button" here, as the U.S. so grandly did on Russia. The message of this election is that Ukrainians—like their immediate western neighbors before them—want their politicians to stop their bickering and build a properly functioning democratic state integrated with the West. We should be there to help them.

Source: The Wall Street Journal