A Russian friend once said to me, "You Americans are an odd people. You love our liberals, but you don't like your own liberals." He added, "You should support your local liberals too."
My friend's words came to mind this past week as I watched the extraordinary street protests in Ukraine. Anyone who cares about citizens fighting corrupt regimes can't help but be moved by scenes of thousands of demonstrators, many of them students, standing for hours in Kiev's Independence Square in sub-zero temperatures--waving banners, chanting and protesting what they believe is a rigged election.
When the Bush Administration rushed to celebrate the protesters' courage and tenacity, I thought--what rank hypocrisy. These same officials have shown no respect for American pro-democracy protesters, and, if they have their way, they'll probably lock their political opponents out of central Washington when Inauguration Day rolls around.
On the hypocrisy meter: Consider how the Ukrainian protesters' charges of election fraud have been treated so seriously by Bush and his team, while they dismiss such charges when they are raised here at home. And how exactly does the Bush Administration--which has said that it cannot accept the results of the Ukrainian presidential election as legitimate "because it does not meet international standards"--explain why those international standards don't apply to the US? What right does this Administration have to lecture Ukraine when Bush came to office in a non-violent coup d'etat in 2000, and when numerous reports document that the 2004 election was marred by GOP voter suppression and intimidation tactics, flawed voting equipment and unexplained discrepancies between exit polls and official results in key swing states?
Then there's the reality that the mass street protests in Ukraine are not as sweet or homegrown as they appear. Although it is virtually unreported in our media, the US has been closely involved in funding and training Ukraine's youth protests, and the united opposition.
As Ian Traynor reports in The Guardian, "...while the gains of the orange-bedecked 'chestnut revolution' are Ukraine's, the campaign is an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in Western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries and four years, has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavory regimes...Funded and organized by the US government, deploying US consultancies, pollsters, the two big American parties and US non-government organizations...the operation--engineering democracy through the ballot box and civil disobedience--is now so slick that the methods have matured into a template for winning other people's elections."
It was even US funding that organized and paid for key exit polls; those gave the opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko an 11-point lead and set the stage for charges of vote fraud.
Nor is it accurate to think that we are watching an unalloyed struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. As Jonathan Steele observes in The Guardian, "Yuschenko, who claims to have won Sunday's election, served as Prime Minister under the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, and some of his backers are also linked to the brutal industrial clans who manipulated Ukraine's post-Soviet privatization." (It is also worth noting, as The Independent reported Sunday, that Yuschenko's wife, a US citizen of Ukrainian descent, worked in the Reagan White House.) Certainly, many Ukrainians seek a less corrupt, more democratic system, but as Steele notes, "to suggest that [Yuschenko] would provide a sea-change in Ukrainian politics and economic management is naive."
Yet, this more realistic view of Yuschenko shouldn't diminish the democratic awakening in Kiev and other cities. In many ways, as The Guardian's Nick Paton observes, "this protest is no longer about America's or Russia's candidate, but an end to the past 12 years of misrule." The journalists who are breaking with state rules--as well as the thousands who have filled Independence Square--are "for the first time, realizing how they could one day have a government whose main interest is not stealing from state coffers and protecting favored oligarchs, but actually representing the people who elected them. For most people, this is a first taste of real self-determination."
But, for now, we need a media which provides needed historical and political background and context. Since 1991, every election in the former Soviet Union has been tainted by fraud, unfair use of state television and, quite often by direct rigging. Yet, the Bush team has ignored far more egregious examples of voter fraud, as was the case with Azerbaijan's transparently fraudulent election last year.
It may well be that the Ukrainian election was one of the most fairly conducted, with the two candidates ("the two Viktors" as the Russian press refers to them) even engaging in a nationally televised debate several weeks before the election. That doesn't mean vote fraud isn't an issue or that discrepancies shouldn't be challenged but, as Steele points out: "The decision to protest appears to depend mainly on realpolitik and whether the challengers or the incumbent are considered 'pro-Western' or 'pro-market.'"
With the country culturally and geographically divided between the heavily industrialized East, traditionally allied with Russia, and the West, a traditional center of Ukrainian nationalism, there is already talk of secession by leading governors in the Eastern part of the country. (On Sunday, as many as 3,500 officials from 17 regions in Eastern Ukraine voted unanimously to seek autonomy by public referendum if the opposition continues its fight to make Yuschenko president.)
And though there has been no violence yet, the streets remain filled with growing crowds of impassioned protesters, eyeball to eyeball with riot police. In the next few days, the country's Supreme Court is likely to rule on the validity of the election, which will add a new element to the chaotic mix. And calls for a recount--to be overseen by international observers--are being issued by many European leaders. But that too will take time, and patience is running thin.
Perhaps of gravest import is that we're witnessing the worst crisis in US-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War--with both sides deeply involved in the election, with each having a candidate, and with each proclaiming the fateful consequences of the election's resolution. (An important footnote: The US--in actions reminiscent of the Cold War--has since 1991 encircled Russia with NATO troops and US bases, from the Baltics to Central Asia. While not condoning Russia's meddling in Ukraine, some media reporting on this historical and geopolitical context might provide necessary insight into the deep anxiety in Moscow about a divided or, perhaps, anti-Russian Ukraine on its borders.)
Depending on the outcome, and let us pray for a peaceful resolution, the consequences may well be profound and far-reaching. Even apart from the possibility of civil violence, the result may be a new European divide between East and West; the end of any meaningful Russian cooperation with the US--remember Putin has been one of Bush's leading European "friends" since the Iraq war began; and if Ukraine is "lost," we may even witness the destabilization of Putin's leadership and Russia itself.