It should have been an easy election victory.
After all, the ruling government party in Ukraine had everything it needed. They had support from the country’s powerful oligarchs whose fat bank accounts and desire for a pliable government that would allow them to continue to pillage the economy made them eager supporters of Viktor Yanukovych, the thuggish favorite of outgoing president Leonid Kuchma. They had all the major media in their pockets along with the armed forces, security apparatus, and police. Opposition and neutral media were shut down or suddenly charged with “tax fraud” by government authorities. They were backed by Moscow which sent untold millions in additional campaign donations for the candidate who dances to the Kremlin’s tune.
On election day last Sunday, everything went just as planned. Thugs beat up supporters of reform candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Unknown “criminals” apparently found it profitable to raid polling places and smash ballot boxes. At least one poll inspector was found murdered. In some areas public employees were asked to turn in ballots to their supervisors. Special buses helped transport “reliable” voters from one polling place to another. Regions of eastern Ukraine with large Russian populations that supported Yanukovych had sudden and unexpected increases in voter turnout. Regions that tended to back the pro-Western Yushchenko had equally unexpected declines in turn out.
And then it all went very wrong.
As it became clear the election was being stolen, the Ukrainian people, supposedly numbed by years of Soviet rule, political corruption, and powerlessness, said no. Thousands poured into the streets to protest. Then tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands. Members of the militia began to join the demonstrators. The government, not the people, acted as if they were the mindless, numbed ones. The people bypassed the media and organized themselves with cell phones, blogs, email, and text messages.
Most amazing of all were the testimonies of ordinary Ukrainians from all walks of life. Isolated by the post-Soviet totalitarian mindset, they have found they are not so alone. Millions of their fellow citizens share a desire for democracy and end to corruption:
Authoritarian and totalitarian governments have a thousand ways to maintain power—through any combination of force, corruption, or lies. Yet, these become meaningless when the people cease to be afraid and cease to believe the propaganda. This is what has ended scores of totalitarian regimes over the past two decades.
Naturally, not everyone is happy with this prospect. The thuggish Yanukovych has already received congratulations on his “victory” from the leaders of China and Belarus, as well as twice from Vladimir Putin (as if once wasn’t enough). Putin invested major resources in electing a pliable candidate who would bring Ukraine back into the empire and now it is all slipping away. One of his top political aides (who also served as an advisor to Yanukovych) publicly claimed that the revolution in Ukraine was nothing but a Polish-American plot engineered from Washington by Zbigniew Brzezinski and his sons. Putin’s chief delegate to the EU has bitterly denounced American involvement” “It's impossible not to see the direct involvement of the American Congress, individual congressmen who are spending their days and nights in Kyiv—foundations, non-government organizations, consultants, experts,” Sergei Yastrzhembsky said in an interview on state-run Rossiya television. “It's clear and obvious to everyone.”
While the leadership of the European Union and OSCE has joined with the U.S. in denouncing the falsified elections and calling for a peaceful resolution to the crisis and the possibility of new elections, the European left is seeing a plot of global proportions. An article in this week’s Guardian tries to paint the situation in Ukraine as an effort by imperialistic and Russophobic Americans and Europeans to gain control of Ukraine. Openly supportive of Yanukovych, author Jonathan Steele, accused opposition candidate Yushchenko of being a either a closet communist or possibly a closet fascist. A commentator for the British newspaper The Independent caught up in the prevailing spirit of moral relativism, compared decades of murderous Soviet control in Ukraine with U.S.-Mexican relations. Paris’s AFP was more nuanced in its reporting, merely noting that “Nations the world over have slowly begun to split into camps over Sunday's vote. Britain added its voice to Western nations refusing to recognize pro-Moscow Yanukovich’s win while China joined Russia and authoritarian Belarus in saying that Sunday’s poll was fair.” The ever-informative BBC wrote glowing of Yanukovich, noting that the nearly illiterate oligarch, who has rap sheet including assault and theft, had “an impressive educational record.”
At present the situation in Ukraine rests on a knife’s edge and it is unknown whether this strategic nation of 48 million with its vast potential will follow the path taken by its Western neighbors, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, or the path taken by China in Tiananmen Square. The western regions of Ukraine, with longstanding ties to the west, are offset by the eastern regions with their large Russian minority, heavy industry, and the highest levels of corruption.
Ukraine’s future is of vital concern to the United States. Under the Kuchma regime, it was deeply implicated in supplying arms to Saddam Hussein and other Middle Eastern despots. It has not only been a source of arms but also a transshipment point for weapons from other countries. The nation’s mafia-like economic elite with their big offshore bank accounts represent a threat in the world of illegal money laundering, be it from traffickers in drugs and prostitutes or from international terrorists.
A free, stable Ukraine is a potential ally in the fight against terrorism and will certainly not contribute to the kind of instability on which terrorists and their backers thrive. Democracy in Ukraine will be a major setback to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to return his country to authoritarian, single party rule. Perhaps most importantly, it will send again the powerful message that freedom may be delayed but never stopped. This message will resound from Kyiv to the Sunni triangle, to Havana, to Pyongyang.
John Radzilowski, Ph.D., is senior fellow at Piast Institute (www.piastinstitute.org) and author or co-author of eleven books. He lives in Minneapolis and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.