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Shortchanging Democracy in Ukraine

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, May 28, 2007

Amid the wreckage of the Bush administration it's easily forgotten that the export of democracy to formerly unfree societies has not always been a failing policy. For a decade after the end of the Cold War, the United States and its European allies worked through NATO and the European Union to convert 10 post-Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. At the time it wasn't clear that all or even any of them would embrace free elections and free markets. That they did was due in large part to the abundant tutelage, training, aid and tough love provided by the Western alliance.

Lots of people are pointing to Iraq as an example of what happens when attempts at nation-building go wrong. But what happens when it isn't tried -- when the West sees a country struggling to find a new political order after decades of repression and simply decides to back off? In effect, a test of that option is underway far from Iraq, in the biggest country between Western Europe and Russia -- Ukraine.

Three years ago, when the Bush "freedom agenda" was still gaining momentum, Ukraine was a focal point. U.S. funds poured into nongovernmental organizations that were agitating for a free presidential election. When a Russian-sponsored candidate tried to steal the election through blatant fraud, the Bush administration strongly backed the popular protest movement, the Orange Revolution, that eventually forced a new vote. The pro-Western winner of that ballot, Viktor Yushchenko, was for a while a favorite in Washington; there was even a push to put Ukraine on a fast track for NATO membership.

The change from then to now is one measure of how far a demoralized administration has retreated from its ambitions, and from the world outside the Middle East. Last week Ukraine was again in political crisis; the protagonists once again were the pro-Western president, Yushchenko, and his pro-Russian rival, Viktor Yanukovych, who is now the prime minister. Once again crowds gathered in the center of Kiev. There were struggles for control over government buildings, and each side accused the other of plotting a coup. The country seemed to teeter between a compromise agreement on new parliamentary elections -- which was announced yesterday -- and an attempt by one side or both to seize power by force.

The Bush administration and its NATO allies, meanwhile, were nearly invisible. Contact between U.S. officials and the feuding Ukrainians was limited mostly to the U.S. ambassador in Kiev and European affairs officials at the State Department. A senior adviser to Yanukovych who came to Washington last week to lobby for more involvement, former foreign minister Konstantyn Gryshenko, found it hard to get a meeting at the National Security Council or the vice president's office.

"What's needed from the United States, and what has been lacking, is a strong message to all sides that it is in their interest to abide by democratic principles," Gryshenko, a former ambassador to Washington, told me. "The message we're getting is that the United States really doesn't care."

It's not just the lack of phone calls or visits that conveys that disengagement. As the human rights group Freedom House points out in a new report, the administration's foreign aid budget proposal for next year contains big cuts in democracy funding for Europe and Eurasia. In Ukraine, the administration would slash funding for civil society organizations -- that is, the groups that led the democratic revolution of 2004 -- to $6.4 million, reflecting a 40 percent reduction from last year. In Russia, where pro-democracy and human rights NGOs are under enormous pressure from an increasingly autocratic Vladimir Putin, a cut of more than 50 percent is planned.

The retreat is largely a function of the administration's ever-deeper absorption in the Middle East -- a lot of the democracy funding is being shifted there -- and simple demoralization. There's a reluctance to do anything that might help Russia's perceived ally, Yanukovych, who believes he would win any free and fair election. It doesn't help that European governments have lost their willingness to offer more memberships in Western clubs. Both NATO and the European Union have made it clear that Ukraine won't be admitted anytime soon, regardless of how its politicians behave.

What will happen in the absence of Western influence? Maybe Ukraine will muddle through; most of its leaders seem more interested in the model of democratic Poland than of Putin's Russia. Maybe Russia, which will never lose interest in its neighbor, will succeed in converting it into a political satellite, as it tried to do in 2004. Or maybe the chaos in Kiev will deepen, violence will erupt and the country will start to splinter, like Yugoslavia in the 1990s -- or Iraq. If so, it won't be because the United States tried to impose democracy; but it might be because it didn't.


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