Majority rule, seriously

December 28, 2004

UKRAINE IS STILL split. Though nearly complete election results show a clear victory for Viktor A. Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution, and though this is tremendously good news for those who support democracy and honest government in Ukraine, the fact remains that 44 percent of the voters opted for his opponent, Viktor F. Yanukovych, in a bitterly divided race that has sown deep distrust on both sides.

Those who opposed Mr. Yushchenko contend that he pulled a fast one in getting the results of the previous (deeply flawed) election overturned, and that he is in some sense an agent of Western and especially American interests. It sounds faintly ridiculous to accuse the U.S. government and various private American organizations of working on a nefarious plot to impose a system on Ukraine that, in essence, recognizes the will of the majority -- but that's what the unhappiness with Mr. Yushchenko comes down to, and not only among his opponents in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine but among their sponsors in Moscow, as well.

So how is he going to overcome that? To his fellow Ukrainians, he must prove that he listens to their concerns and that, more important, the country is demonstrably better off with him as president. To the Kremlin, Mr. Yushchenko must make the case that Ukraine and Russia will always be closely linked, that he's not about to be seduced by the West, and that he won't hold Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's undiplomatic and self-defeating support of Mr. Yanukovych against him.

Here the actions and assurances of the United States and the European Union must come into play, as well. Mr. Putin blundered badly in Ukraine. There is likely to be an ugly mood in the Kremlin if Mr. Yushch-enko does, in the end, assume the presidency. Moscow won't be above exploiting the split in Ukraine to advance Russian interests. Americans and Europeans must make clear to Mr. Putin that their support for the election rerun has to do with their support for democracy and for certain standards of national conduct that Mr. Yushchenko -- but not Mr. Yanukovych -- aspires to.

An objective truth is emerging in Kiev, and it is that a majority of voters went with the man in the orange scarf. The message to Mr. Putin should be simple: You can't pretend this hasn't happened.

The men in the Kremlin are likely, nonetheless, to dismiss such arguments as sanctimonious justifications for what was really a cynical power play by the West. They would be wrong, but the challenge to Washington and to the leading European nations is to guide the Russian leadership to an understanding of why that is so. It could only be good for Russia itself if that happened.

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