Drop in U.S. aid hits democracy efforts in Ukraine, which heads to polls today

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 7, 2010

KIEV, UKRAINE -- More than five years ago, a Western-funded exit poll challenged the official results of the presidential election in Ukraine and sparked the drama that became known as the Orange Revolution. Huge crowds protested voting fraud, the courts ordered a new election and the Kremlin's candidate was forced to concede defeat.

When Ukrainians cast ballots for a new president on Sunday, the independent research groups behind that exit poll will be out in force again. But the poll took a hit after the first round of the election last month when it reported results at odds with those of other surveys as well as the final vote tally. What went wrong? A budget shortfall had forced organizers to cut the number of districts covered.

The poll organizers' difficulties illustrate a larger phenomenon: U.S. financial aid intended to bolster Ukraine's fledgling democracy has fallen sharply in recent years despite Washington's rhetorical support for this former Soviet republic after the Orange Revolution.

The decline reflects what some call "Ukraine fatigue," or growing Western impatience with the political infighting that has paralyzed the Ukrainian government since 2005. But analysts say it also highlights Washington's tendency to focus on elections and breakthroughs like the Orange Revolution instead of the difficult, drawn-out work of building institutions such as independent courts, free media and a vigorous civil society.

The temptation -- for policymakers as well as activists -- is to label countries such as Ukraine "democratic enough" and move on to the next dictatorship. But many scholars say the United States could have a greater impact by concentrating on shoring up the dozens of weak democracies worldwide that are so troubled by poor governance that they appear to be at risk of backsliding.

Some say Ukraine, for example, remains vulnerable to an authoritarian comeback similar to the one mounted by Vladimir Putin in Russia. Polls in Ukraine, a nation of 46 million strategically located on the Black Sea between Russia and the West, show deep frustration with democracy, with less than a third of respondents expressing approval of the transition to a multiparty system after the fall of the Soviet Union. Less than half say Sunday's vote will be fair, and nearly three-quarters say Ukraine is headed toward instability and chaos.

"There are some eerie echoes of public opinion in Russia a decade ago," said Samuel Charap, a scholar of the region at the Washington-based Center for American Progress. "Ukrainians are overwhelmingly disillusioned. They're losing faith in democracy."

That faith will be further shaken, he said, if the election is disrupted or ends in dispute. Tensions are running high in the hotly contested race, with the two candidates threatening to send their supporters into the streets after the vote and accusing each other of plotting large-scale ballot fraud.

"There was a sense of complacency after the Orange Revolution that Ukraine had reached some type of irreversible turning point," Charap said. "But there's still a possibility of backtracking, and even if it's not highly likely, it means the West needs to be actively engaged."

Authoritarian comeback?

Although Ukraine's regional divisions and feuding oligarchs would make it difficult for anyone to pull off a Putin-style consolidation of power, both candidates in Sunday's runoff have been criticized as having autocratic tendencies. The front-runner, Viktor Yanukovych, was accused of trying to steal the last election, while his opponent, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has been renounced as a potential tyrant by outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko, her former Orange Revolution ally.

Both Democrats and Republicans hailed Yushchenko as a hero when he came to power, and President George W. Bush's administration quickly boosted funding to help Yushchenko's government implement political reforms, calling Ukraine "an example of democracy for people around the world."

But as he foundered as a leader, the funding fell from $40 million in 2005 to $20 million in 2008. The decrease mirrored a decline in overall U.S. aid to Ukraine, including funds for securing nuclear facilities, from a high of $360 million in 1998 to $210 million a decade later, according to State Department statistics. The Obama administration has proposed raising spending on democracy programs in Ukraine to $26 million this year.

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