Jewish World Review Oct. 20, 2004 / 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Daniel Sneider

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Fate of democracy in Ukraine will be at stake Oct. 31 | Two days before Americans go to the polls, there will be another presidential election that is of great importance to the United States.

The fate of democracy in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine will be at stake in its October 31 vote. The choice is likely to shape whether Ukraine, a nation of 50 million people, faces West toward Europe, or back East toward its former imperial master, Russia.

The Ukrainian election campaign has been a turbulent, even ugly, affair. Hints of violence and manipulation of the results are in the air. The government-controlled media have steered coverage toward the current rulers in Kiev. And the main opposition candidate, the pro-Western former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, was apparently poisoned. He believes it was by the regime itself.

But the most disturbing element has been the blatant intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nothing could have been more obvious than the televised coverage recently of an ostensibly private celebration of Putin's birthday at his residence outside Moscow. Putin kissed the current Ukrainian president and his anointed successor, declaring: "Russia is not indifferent to the choice that the people of Ukraine will make. ... The future of relations depends on how Ukraine's leadership will build its policy toward Russia."

Russia's choice, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, returned the favor, reaffirming that he will reverse Ukraine's current course toward eventual membership in the NATO alliance.

Moscow is worried that reformist opposition leader Yushchenko would move Ukraine more rapidly toward both NATO and toward membership in the European Union. But Yushchenko is a pragmatist, and he knows that neighboring Russia is Ukraine's largest trading partner. Despite the depiction of him by the Russian media as an extremist Ukrainian nationalist, he will try to keep good ties with Russia.

Moscow has a larger goal in mind: close economic integration among the core of the old Soviet Union, namely Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Moscow's current geopolitical thinking has moved away from an earlier emphasis on integration with Europe. Now the Kremlin envisions "two Europes" - the EU and a Russian-led "Euro-East."

"Russia still values its status as a European country, especially if it can cast itself as a leader of the `other Europe,'" Igor Torbakov, a Moscow-educated Ukrainian scholar and journalist, told me.

Beyond economics, Ukraine occupies a special place in the minds of Russians. For them, it is still Rus, the birthplace of Russian civilization and culture. "Without Ukraine, there can be no Russian empire," said Torbakov.

The current Ukrainian government is a comfortable fit with Putin's Russia - it, too is dominated by big business oligarchs and government bureaucrats, bound in a web of deep corruption. As in Russia, the government controls all the national TV channels and most of the print media. It relies heavily on support from the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine and the coal and steel belt in the south.

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Unfortunately for Moscow, as indicated by polls, Ukrainians are not taking the hint. Polls give the pro-Western reformer a clear lead. That has increased fears that there will be an attempt to rig the vote. Those concerns were underlined when Yushchenko spent weeks in an Austrian hospital, partly paralyzed, from the effects of some kind of poisoning. The government tried to brush this off as a case of food or alcohol poisoning - but former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin told me that such weapons have long existed in the arsenal of the former Soviet secret services.

The West and the United States need to wake up to the critical nature of the Ukrainian election. Unfortunately, the White House seems happy just to praise the current regime in Ukraine for sending 1,650 troops to Iraq.

The United States needs to make clear that Ukrainian democracy is a vital interest. Large numbers of international observers should be present for the vote, and exit polls should be taken to try to block a fix. And we need to be thinking what to do should Ukrainians take to the streets if their rights are denied.

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Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Comment by clicking here.


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