Betting on Democracy
A year ago the jewels of President Bush's democracy policy were the Cedar and Orange revolutions of Lebanon and Ukraine, which had ousted autocratic regimes backed by Russia and Syria and seemingly ushered in pro-Western democracies. Last week their unforeseen and unpleasant consequences presented Bush with a critical pair of choices. He could abandon his faith in a new democratic order -- or double his bet on it.
The crisis that has the world's attention is Lebanon; though most people don't perceive it as a test of Bush's democracy agenda, that is how the administration sees it. Oddly, Hezbollah's astute leader, Hasan Nasrallah, also gets it: "The main obstacles in the path of the new Middle East are the resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon, and, on the level of the regimes, mainly Syria and Iran," he said in a television interview last week, accurately summarizing Bush's view. "What is required, then, is to eliminate these obstacles and to remove them from the path of the historic American plan for this region."
The parallel crisis in Ukraine -- yes, there is one -- is far from American television screens. The fight there is being waged in smoke-filled rooms, and is as obscure as Lebanon is dramatic. But the essential problem for Bush is similar: The new democratic system he so strongly supported has been skillfully exploited by the revolution's erstwhile losers.
After months of Byzantine maneuvering, the thuggish politician Moscow tried to install as Ukraine's president though electoral fraud in 2004, Viktor Yanukovich, is on the point of taking office this week as prime minister -- with powers that equal or exceed those of President Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the Orange Revolution.
From the viewpoint of traditional U.S. interests, Yanukovich is still a menace. He opposes Ukraine's integration into NATO, a step the Bush administration has been pushing, and he may well be willing to sacrifice his country's sovereignty to Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. He favors the Russian language over Ukrainian. But, in contrast to 2004, Yanukovich won his votes fairly in March's parliamentary elections, drawing on the disaffected Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine. So far he's done nothing to undermine the democratic system -- in fact, he's trying to persuade Yushchenko's party to join his government.
For Bush, the question is: Should the United States accept a democratic Ukrainian government that turns its back on the West, or encourage its allies to twist the political system to prevent that outcome? Was the Orange Revolution about installing democracy or shifting Ukraine from Moscow's orbit to that of Washington and Brussels? Yushchenko is being urged by some pro-Western politicians to dissolve the parliament, a technically legal but democratically questionable maneuver. By some scenarios, he would then postpone new elections -- which Yanukovich would probably win -- and rule the country on his own.
Last week the president demanded that Yanukovich accept a number of conditions, including continued steps toward integration with the West, in exchange for being designated as prime minister. That left open both the option of parliament's dissolution, and that of a national unity government.
The Bush administration has been working for months to keep Yanukovich out of power. A few weeks ago it urged Yushchenko not to seal a pact he was about to make with his pro-Russian rival. But by the end of last week, officials were saying that Bush had decided to accept any democratic outcome in Ukraine -- including a government that rejects the West -- as long as that government preserves free elections and free markets.
If he takes office, there's a risk that Yanukovich could once again try to turn Ukraine into an autocratic Russian satellite or that a country the size of France, with a population of nearly 50 million, will be stranded for years outside an integrating Europe. Ukraine, like Lebanon, could be lost. But then, this year's reversals have already demonstrated that the color revolutions of 2004 and 2005 were the beginning, rather than the end, of the transformation Bush seeks.