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Coup in Kiev

Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page A28

UKRAINE FACED a fateful choice on Sunday: not just between two sharply opposed candidates in a presidential election runoff, but between two political systems. Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko promised a genuine liberal democracy along Western lines, while Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych represented those forces that, backed by a neo-imperial Russia, would rule this large European nation through force and fraud. The outcome of the vote has brought this confrontation to a head. According to exit polls, the democratic opposition won handily, by 54 to 43 percent in one survey. But yesterday the government revealed its intent to steal the election, announcing that Mr. Yanukovych had a decisive lead in the vote count. Tens of thousands of outraged citizens filled the center of Kiev last night to oppose this authoritarian coup. The United States and other Western governments must do everything possible to support them.

For the Bush administration, the responsibility starts with stating the unvarnished truth about what has happened in an election that some -- including those employed by a large Ukrainian lobbying operation in Washington -- have falsely portrayed as flawed but free. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who traveled to Kiev to observe the elections with the endorsement of President Bush, made an excellent start: "It is now apparent," he said in Kiev, "that a concerted and forceful program of election-day fraud and abuse was enacted with either the leadership or cooperation of governmental authorities." That judgment was backed by the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and several nongovernmental organizations that sent observers to Ukraine. Appropriately, the State Department called yesterday for "quick action on the part of the government of Ukraine" to "ensure an outcome that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people."

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The United States should do everything possible to help those who seek to reverse the fraud. If that proves impossible in the short term, the United States at least can demonstrate to Ukrainians that it supports their desire for genuine democracy -- and it can oppose any use of force by the government to suppress popular demonstrations. It can take action against senior Ukrainian officials and businessmen who are organizing and supporting the fraud, denying them visas or placing sanctions on their companies. It can also work toward a joint Western response to the new government, which should include a freeze on all cooperation with Mr. Yanukovych, and vigorous and material support for the Ukrainian political parties and civil society groups that fight for democracy.

President Bush must also end his administration's passivity in the face of massive and malign Russian intervention in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin, who has been consolidating an authoritarian regime in Moscow, now seeks to install a client government in Kiev; he channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into Mr. Yanukovych's campaign and personally traveled to Ukraine before each of the election's two rounds. Yesterday Mr. Putin brazenly issued a statement congratulating Mr. Yanukovych, even though Ukraine's election commission had not finished counting the vote or declared an official result. To its credit, the administration summoned the Russian ambassador in Washington to a meeting with a State Department official, Assistant Secretary A. Elizabeth Jones, who expressed concern about Mr. Putin's action. The next step is for Mr. Bush to clearly and publicly challenge the Russian president on his neo-imperialism -- and to design a U.S. policy to check it.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company