The Bush administration is seeking to support Ukrainian demonstrators who are challenging official results declaring that a Moscow-backed candidate narrowly won Sunday's presidential election without risking an open break with Russian President Vladimir Putin, administration officials said yesterday.
Even before the count was completed, Putin on Monday congratulated Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on his victory over Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko in an election that international observers said was deeply flawed. Yushchenko declared himself the winner yesterday and took a symbolic oath of office as hundreds of thousands of protesters packed Kiev's downtown streets.
Before the Ukrainian election, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush discussed the issue at an economic summit last weekend, officials said, with Bush stressing the United States' interest in a democratic outcome.
(Jason Reed -- Reuters)
Putin visited Ukraine before the runoff election and an earlier round of voting, in an apparent attempt to influence the results. But administration officials said they are focusing on the need for a democratic outcome and ensuring a result that reflects the will of the voters and is credible to the world -- a message that a top State Department official, A. Elizabeth Jones, delivered to the Russian ambassador Monday.
"This is not a U.S.-Russia issue," an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of sensitive diplomacy. "It is not an East-West issue." He said that a fully democratic Ukraine would have to have close relations with Russia, no matter who wins the presidency.
"The Russians may make it an issue, but it isn't," he said.
Although White House officials hailed the close relationship with Putin early in President Bush's tenure, tensions have risen in the past year over Putin's efforts to muzzle political opponents and centralize political control. The dispute over the Ukrainian election is potentially problematic because Russia may feel that the United States is interfering in its sphere of influence. Yesterday, Putin attacked Western criticism of the election.
Charles A. Kupchan, director of Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the administration appeared to be trying to encourage a review of the election without crossing what he called two "red lines" -- creating an overt rift with Putin or encouraging violence in Ukraine.
He said that Ukraine has remained relatively cohesive since the breakup of the Soviet Union but that the voting generally split along east-west lines, with the western, Ukrainian-speaking areas supporting Yushchenko and the eastern, mostly Russian-speaking areas voting for Yanukovych. A misstep, Kupchan said, "could turn a political cleavage into a conflict of competing identities."
Bush raised the upcoming Ukrainian election with Putin when they met on the sidelines of an economic summit last weekend, officials said, but they declined to characterize the discussion except to say that Bush stressed the United States' interest in a democratic outcome.
Bush also raised concerns about Putin's efforts to rein in democratic institutions, officials said. Putin responded with a long lecture about how he was creating a "democratic style" of government that is consistent with Russian history and the unique problems that Russia faces as a multiethnic society on a large landmass. Bush has not spoken to Putin since the Ukrainian election, officials said.
The White House, in a statement issued in Crawford, Tex., where Bush is spending Thanksgiving, said the United States "is deeply disturbed by extensive and credible indications of fraud committed in the Ukrainian elections."
The statement noted that "the United States stands with the Ukrainian people in this difficult time." The White House urged Ukrainian authorities not to certify the results until allegations of "organized fraud" are resolved, and to respect the will of the people.
"The government bears a special responsibility not to use or incite violence," the statement added, saying the government also must permit news organizations to report on the matter "without intimidation or coercion."
State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said Jones, an assistant secretary of state, had also spoken twice to the Ukrainian ambassador expressing "our deep concern over the allegations of fraud and abuse" and calling for "a complete and immediate investigation into the conduct of the election."
U.S. officials have suggested they are considering a series of escalating steps against the Ukrainian government if it fails to take effective action, starting with refusing to issue visas for officials and moving to restrictions on nearly $150 million in annual aid. But officials said they are working to avoid having to take such steps.
"It is pretty clear it was a stolen election," the administration official said. "But the situation is very fluid."