Ukraine democracy needs U.S. help

September 24, 2007|By Joseph Tydings

Next Sunday, with Ukraine's once-hopeful Orange Revolution in disarray, that wonderful but beleaguered country will hold a national parliament election that is shaping up to be another political storm - one where an ill wind blows through to steal the vote.

The Bush administration, so focused on forcing change in Iraq, has turned its back on the survival of Ukraine's fragile new democracy. The United States must join Europe's leading democracies and closely watch the parliament, or Rada, election. If we don't, freedom-loving Ukrainians may be robbed again.

I first met courageous refugees from Ukraine as a young soldier in Europe after World War II. I was struck by their indomitable spirit and appreciation of our democratic institutions. Ukrainian identity, which predates Russia, was never successfully suppressed under the Romanov czars or Stalin's dictatorship. In November 2005, while I was an election monitor in Ukraine, I witnessed a stolen election that was later reversed by thousands of young Ukrainians, gathered under orange flags in Kiev's Maidan Square. They wouldn't stand for election fraud.

As large as Texas and with almost 50 million people, Ukraine was the cradle of Slavic civilization. It was starved by Stalin and devastated by Hitler. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was ruled by Communist successors with Soviet corruption, exploitation and incompetence. Nevertheless, Ukraine is the most educated and enlightened of the nations of the former Soviet Union, and is a beacon of hope for all.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians have continued to aspire to a better life, and to vote in huge numbers. Today, with Kremlin-influenced oligarchs bankrolling two of the top three parties, Russia is trying to bring Ukraine back into its orbit. A stolen election would be just what the Russians ordered.

Igor Popov thinks so. The head of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, he believes Sunday's elections will be "dirtier" than those in 2006, when the world was watching.

"In 2006, President Viktor Yushchenko was very interested in showing the world that we are capable of conducting honest elections," he wrote in a recent report. This time, he fears leading parties will again try to manipulate the elections.

Today, our country, the world's leading democracy, has forgotten Ukraine and the need for effective election monitoring. In 2005, USAID funded a monitoring mission of more than 30 former U.S. and European legislators; I was among them. Since then, the organizing group, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, has been forced to completely close shop in Ukraine for lack of Bush administration support.

In contrast, the European Parliament's largest political group recently urged member states to send observers to Ukraine. Joseph Daul, leader of the European People's Party and European Democrats, sees the elections as a test of the country's readiness to emerge from its recent political turmoil. In an interview earlier this month, he said that fair results are important for "strengthening Ukraine's democracy" and its "European future."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will observe. A smattering of other international nonprofit groups, including a few Americans, are signed up too. But unless the number of registered international observers - just 400 so far - increases drastically, a tree could fall in an empty forest and no one will hear.

What will happen next in Ukraine if another election is stolen? Perhaps Ukrainian poet-laureate Taras Shevchenko said it best in his poem, "My Friendly Epistle" in 1845: [I will] grieve like one accursed, Through all the hours both last and first, Sad at the crossroads, day and night, With no one there to see my plight.

Across a century since his death, Shevchenko's beloved poems evoked heartfelt sympathy for oppressed people everywhere and evolved into an indictment of rulers who abuse their power. Today, it is imperative the United States heed his words and join the international community to watch the Rada elections closely.

Joseph Tydings served as U.S. Senator from Maryland from 1965 to 1971. He was co-chairman of the Election Monitor Team in Ukraine's November and December 2005 elections. His e-mail is tydingsj@dicksteinshapiro.com.

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