Democracy's High Price

Saturday, December 24, 2005

AYEAR AFTER Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Russia's effort to combat the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe continues unabated. Its latest weapon is natural gas. As the heating season got underway this month, Moscow announced through its state-controlled energy company, Gazprom, that it would more than triple the price it charges Ukraine for gas supplies, to $160 per 1,000 cubic meters. When Ukraine's government sought to negotiate a more gradual increase, Moscow threatened to raise the price further, to more than $200, or cut off supplies as of Jan. 1. Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to trigger this crisis just as Ukraine approaches a crucial parliamentary election on March 26. Thanks to Mr. Putin, soaring energy prices for Ukrainian consumers may be a punishing issue for the former Orange revolutionaries.

Next door in Belarus, pro-Moscow President Alexander Lukashenko has no such worries. He, too, has an election coming up, on March 19; he abruptly scheduled it last week, the day after holding a summit meeting with Mr. Putin. At that meeting, Mr. Putin agreed to hold the price of gas for Belarus steady next year, at $46 per 1,000 cubic meters. Belarus's democratic opposition, which had been preparing for a presidential election in July, was left with one week to register its candidate and just a few more to campaign, without the benefit of mass media, money or the right to free assembly.

Western leaders tended to assume after the Orange Revolution that Ukraine had turned the corner toward democracy and could be expected to follow the path of other former European communist states, such as Poland and Hungary. Belarus, they hoped, might be next: President Bush publicly singled it out as "Europe's last dictatorship," and both Congress and the European Union approved multimillion-dollar programs to support pro-democracy movements. But the attention of Western governments to Eastern Europe has slackened in recent months while Mr. Putin has stayed focused. He has never accepted the Orange Revolution, describing it as a plot by Western intelligence agencies. He has directed much of his foreign and domestic policy in the past year to stopping similar democratic movements in Eurasia while making sure no such cause can arise in Russia.

March could be a landmark in his counterrevolution: first the reelection of Mr. Lukashenko, who can be counted on to use fraud and violence against his opponents; then, one week later, a Ukrainian election that could greatly weaken the pro-democracy parties Mr. Putin unsuccessfully tried to suppress a year ago. That may not be all. An official statement describing Mr. Putin's meeting with Mr. Lukashenko last week promised new steps toward a long-discussed "union" that could eliminate Belarus as an independent state, including the finalization of a union constitution and the adoption by Belarus of the Russian ruble.

Will the West stand up for democracy in Belarus and Ukraine? So far there's not much sign of it. The European Union decided shortly after Mr. Lukashenko's announcement to postpone the launch of a radio service intended to provide uncensored information to Belarusans. Poland's foreign minister, Stefan Meller, spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about Ukraine's gas price problems during a visit to Washington this week, but they did not reach agreement on a concrete response. Many in the administration remain unwilling to react to, or even acknowledge, Mr. Putin's aggressive campaign to undermine Mr. Bush's pro-democracy policy. As U.S. lassitude continues, Mr. Putin's price keeps going up.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company