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In Ukraine, Homegrown Freedom

By Nadia Diuk
Saturday, December 4, 2004; Page A23

There was something familiar about the atmosphere in Kiev this week. I had the same feeling as a student in Warsaw in 1980, when massive street demonstrations and the emergence of the Solidarity trade union threw Poland's Communist government into a state of confusion. At that time, just one gesture, or the display of a symbol -- the red-and-white logo of Solidarity -- conveyed a whole set of aspirations, attitudes and emotions. Now the color orange is the symbol throughout the center of Kiev. Everyone understands what is at stake, and everyone stands united. The Czechs jingled keys, the Serbs showed a fist, the Georgians adopted the rose, and now the Ukrainians wear orange.

Some have sought to portray the events in Ukraine as orchestrated in the West, a model executed with the support of Western pro-democracy foundations. Such views have been put forward by the Kremlin's spin doctors and picked up by commentators in newspapers such as the Guardian in Britain. But there is no real mystery about how these kinds of revolutions happen.

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In all of the cases of "breakthrough" elections in the past five years, the pattern has been much the same: An authoritarian regime tries to falsify elections through a variety of means. This is not unusual in the countries of Central Asia and in other dictatorships around the world, but what made the elections in Slovakia in 1998, Serbia in 2000 and Georgia in 2003 different was the combined pressure on the authorities of a highly motivated and unified civil society, the credible exposure of fraud and expressions of concern from the West.

In each of these situations there was a massive effort by nongovernmental organizations to monitor the vote, whether through parallel vote tabulations, exit polls or reports from domestic observers. These strategies were supported by the reports of Western election observers. In Ukraine the same independent polling group that almost precisely predicted the March 2002 parliamentary election results has conducted exit polling for both parliamentary and presidential elections since 1995. Ukraine also has a seasoned civic group, the Committee of Voters, which has trained and fielded tens of thousands of domestic election observers since the mid-1990s.

None of these efforts would have any resonance without the presence of some free media to spread news of voter fraud. Limited free media were vital in the Serbian and Georgian elections. In Ukraine, although the electronic media were obliged to report the news under instruction from the president's administration, some notable and heroic holdouts ran round-the-clock reports and interviews with protest leaders and officials alike; they also provided air time for the steady cascade of journalists defecting from state-controlled TV, diplomats who signed a statement of protest against the fraudulent elections and a motley array of pop stars and others. Ukraine also has many well-developed independent Internet sites that helped inform the people. Another common element of successful revolutions has been the predominance of opposition supporters within the municipal authorities and the population of the capital city.

Finally, all these breakthrough elections have been accomplished with the vigorous participation of civic groups that support free and fair elections by monitoring the media, carrying out voter education, publicizing the platforms of candidates in the absence of a free press, training election observers, conducting polls and so on.

Youth groups usually form the vanguard of the activist movement: In Slovakia in 1998, most of the non-governmental organizations opposing Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar were run by young people; Otpor in Serbia has become a famous example of the attention-grabbing mix of street theater, civil disobedience and sharp-edged political opposition that was so effective in mobilizing the opposition; and the Kmara youth group in Georgia used similar tactics to give force to the movement that toppled the government in November 2003.

Some commentators believe that the similarity of their actions proves they are part of a U.S.-sponsored plot, an effort to extend American influence throughout the world. Such accusations are now being leveled at the Ukrainian youth group Pora ("it's time"), which has successfully mocked the authorities, held street parades and lain on the highway to block buses filled with government stooges who were ordered to vote in several districts on Election Day.

The Ukrainian youth movement's push for freedom has been handed down through generations: Even the name Pora is instantly recognizable to Ukrainians as the catchword in the revolutionary hymn by the 19th-century poet Ivan Franko, who exhorted his compatriots to rise up against foreign oppressors and struggle for freedom. There's nothing new or Western-inspired about the desire for freedom, and now at last it appears that Ukrainians finally stand on the brink of achieving their age-old dream.

The writer is director, Europe and Eurasia, at the National Endowment for Democracy, a congressionally funded foundation that has supported nongovernmental democracy-building efforts in Ukraine since 1988.

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