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Democracy in Ukraine

John Laughland

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There was a time when the left was in favour of revolution, while the right stood unambiguously for the authority of the state. Not any more. This week both the anti-war Independent and the pro-war Telegraph excitedly announced a "revolution" in Ukraine. Across the pond, the rightwing Washington Times welcomed "the people versus the power".

Whether it is Albania in 1997, Serbia in 2000, Georgia last November or Ukraine now, our media regularly peddle the same fairy tale about how youthful demonstrators manage to bring down an authoritarian regime, simply by attending a rock concert in a central square. Two million anti-war demonstrators can stream though the streets of London and be politically ignored, but a few tens of thousands in central Kiev are proclaimed to be "the people", while the Ukrainian police, courts and governmental institutions are discounted as instruments of oppression.

The western imagination is now so gripped by its own mythology of popular revolution that we have become dangerously tolerant of blatant double standards in media reporting. Enormous rallies have been held in Kiev in support of the prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, but they are not shown on our TV screens: if their existence is admitted, Yanukovich supporters are denigrated as having been "bussed in". The demonstrations in favour of Viktor Yushchenko have laser lights, plasma screens, sophisticated sound systems, rock concerts, tents to camp in and huge quantities of orange clothing; yet we happily dupe ourselves that they are spontaneous.

Or again, we are told that a 96% turnout in Donetsk, the home town of Viktor Yanukovich, is proof of electoral fraud. But apparently turnouts of over 80% in areas which support Viktor Yushchenko are not. Nor are actual scores for Yushchenko of well over 90% in three regions, which Yanukovich achieved only in two. And whereas Yanukovich's final official score was 54%, the western-backed president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, officially polled 96.24% of the vote in his country in January. The observers who now denounce the Ukrainian election welcomed that result in Georgia, saying that it "brought the country closer to meeting international standards".

The blindness extends even to the posters which the "pro-democracy" group, Pora, has plastered all over Ukraine, depicting a jackboot crushing a beetle, an allegory of what Pora wants to do to its opponents.

Such dehumanisation of enemies has well-known antecedents - not least in Nazi-occupied Ukraine itself, when pre-emptive war was waged against the Red Plague emanating from Moscow - yet these posters have passed without comment. Pora continues to be presented as an innocent band of students having fun in spite of the fact that - like its sister organisations in Serbia and Georgia, Otpor and Kmara - Pora is an organisation created and financed by Washington.

It gets worse. Plunging into the crowd of Yushchenko supporters in Independence Square after the first round of the election, I met two members of Una-Unso, a neo-Nazi party whose emblem is a swastika. They were unembarrassed about their allegiance, perhaps because last year Yushchenko and his allies stood up for the Socialist party newspaper, Silski Visti, after it ran an anti-semitic article claiming that Jews had invaded Ukraine alongside the Wehrmacht in 1941. On September 19 2004, Yushchenko's ally, Alexander Moroz, told JTA-Global Jewish News: "I have defended Silski Visti and will continue to do so. I personally think the argument ... citing 400,000 Jews in the SS is incorrect, but I am not in a position to know all the facts." Yushchenko, Moroz and their oligarch ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, meanwhile, cited a court order closing the paper as evidence of the government's desire to muzzle the media. In any other country, support for anti-semites would be shocking; in this case, our media do not even mention it.

Voters in Britain and the US have witnessed their governments lying brazenly about Iraq for over a year in the run-up to war, and with impunity. This is an enormous dysfunction in our own so-called democratic system. Our tendency to paint political fantasies on to countries such as Ukraine which are tabula rasa for us, and to present the west as a fairy godmother swooping in to save the day, is not only a way to salve a guilty conscience about our own political shortcomings; it also blinds us to the reality of continued brazen western intervention in the democratic politics of other countries.


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Here are some views on this from the Ukraine:

As a Ukrainian living in the UK, but currently in Kiev, I can't help responding to Jonathan Steele's article (Ukraine's postmodern coup d'etat, November 26). Steele's determination to interpret the events entirely in the context of the cold war is misleading and patronising towards my compatriots. The current crisis is not about divisions between eastern and western Ukraine or Russia and the US. Ultimately it's not even about Yushchenko and Yanukovich. People across Ukraine took to the streets in hundreds of thousands because they were blatantly deprived of their democratic right for free and honest elections.

It's not in Ukrainian nature to go to the barricades at the first call and it's not romantic to spend several nights in the streets in sub-zero temperatures. But people are euphoric because for the first time in their history they feel they are a nation that got up from its knees and they won't let the people in power get away for the umpteenth time with imposing their will. Steele should try to get rid of his cold war prejudices instead of blaming the US. (Lily Poberezhska, Kiev, Ukraine)

All western papers say "no democracy" in Ukraine, so they support "democratic defender" Yushchenko. What do they know about Ukrainian elections, apart from Yushchenko for the west and Yanukovich for Russia? Yushchenko is an ex-prime minister. During his period, living standards of the average Ukrainian family was awful. Our cities were living in a part-time electrified economy.

Also, why do you say nothing about politicians who support Yushchenko? Many top members of his team have dirty hands. So why doesn't the west trust in the choice of 49% of Ukrainians? Why should we have to listen to offensive accusations, with Yushchenko calling for aggressive acts? Yushchenko, against all rights and provisions of our constitution, proclaimed himself president. No one pushed 49% to vote for Yanukovich, we did it as we're on the side of law, respecting of human rights and for the future prosperity of Ukraine. Please, help us to avoid the civil war for which Yushchenko is calling. (Iryna Larina, Kharkov, Ukraine)

As someone who has made a complete hash of an internal conflict, it seems strange that Vladimir Putin is taken as a credible commentator. Can his current veiled threats indicate that Ukraine could become the target of a Chechen-styled foreign policy? It is odd that as the EU met with Russia in Brussels this week, there is not more focus on the EU position. It is becoming clear that the majority of Ukrainians are supporting Yushchenko, and there appears to be global consensus that the election was rife with fraud.

So why is Putin being given all this attention? Why is the global community not giving him a lesson in democracy building by telling him to stay out of Ukraine's affairs and thus jeopardising Europe's interest of having a strong democracy on its borders?

(Roman Zyla, Kiev, Ukraine)

Ian Traynor clamours about the $14m the US allegedly put behind the opposition, but fails to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars and spin doctors Putin has openly contributed to the Yanukovich campaign; this is in addition to Putin's numerous appearances in Ukraine in the run-up to the election. Your thesis equates to the Ukrainian people accepting the fate of Belarus or Tajikistan, simply because that is most convenient for the geopolitical agenda of its northern neighbour and the corrupt regime of President Kuchma. The results of the election were falsified. Ukrainians responded quickly, effectively and decisively. A nation of 50 million in the centre of Europe is not allowing itself to become a banana republic for the political convenience of its ruling elite and their Kremlin allies. The western world has responded appropriately. (Petro Charchalis, Kiev, Ukraine)

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I welcome the news that there will be fresh elections in the Ukraine. However, I have been very concerned with the way the media in the UK has reported this controversy.

Yushchenko has been presented as a pro-Western European reformer. However, this is not true. The point is that Yushchenko used to be prime minister of the Ukraine. When he was in power he followed neo-liberal policies favoured by the United States. This made him so unpopular with the people he was ousted from power.

Yanukovich, on the other hand, has been attempting to develop a paternalist model of capitalism that is much more like the one enjoyed in Western Europe. His big crime is that he appears to be pro-Russian.

The clearly divided into two distinct camps. If Yushchenko wins the election, we can expect Yanukovich’s supporters taking to the streets. They believe their man was fairly elected and that Yanukovich’s orange revolution is a coup d’etat.

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  • 4 weeks later...

The core of democracy is tolerance of other people's views. Whether it is Rosa Luxemburg's call for respecting the "freedom of people who think differently" or Winston Churchill's pride in British parliamentary debate, left and right agree on this principle.

Alas, it is not much on display in Kiev. Egged on by their favourite, Viktor Yushchenko, crowds have been blocking the main government building and doing all they can to humiliate his rival, prime minister Viktor Yanukovich. Their man won the presidential election, but where is the respect for constitutional procedures they claim to support?

In a minuscule way, I felt the same intolerance when I criticised the street protests in these columns a month ago. The flood of ferocious emails, mainly from Yushchenko fans, exceeded the response to anything I had written before.

Although my article said Yushchenko would probably be a better president than Yanukovich and urged the EU to open its doors to Ukraine immediately (views that most of the Kiev protesters held), it caused outrage. I had dared to suggest that Yanukovich's voters were as genuine as Yushchenko's, and that Yushchenko's backers included oligarchs who had enriched themselves at the state's expense. Above all, it drew attention to the degree of funding by the US and other western governments for the campaign.

The more polite emailers made the point that the vast crowds in Kiev's streets were fed up with corruption and electoral cheating, and foreign funding was irrelevant. Others claimed I had been bribed. Many were viciously anti-Russian (anti-Russianism is as unpleasant as anti-Americanism in my book). But the overwhelming reaction was a crude tone of "If you're not with us, you're against us". It tolerated no criticism, nuance or scope for reasoned disagreement. In short, no democracy.

In spite of the anger it provoked, the article had benefits. It seemed to prompt a more balanced and less romantic tone in some foreign reporting. A few people went to listen to the hopes and fears of people in Donetsk and other non-Yushchenko areas. After all, assuming last Sunday's vote was free, 44% voted for Yanukovich - not exactly a trivial minority that can be swept aside by the political Darwinists who dismiss their opponents as "post-Soviet hold-outs and nostalgics" who will soon die off.

Best of all, the piece was followed by a belated discussion of the role of foreign governments in elections. The way the US has exploited and financed "people's power", first in the Philippines in 1986, to a lesser extent in eastern Europe in 1989, and strongly in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine since 1999, came under the spotlight.

As with "humanitarian interventionism", which was much debated in the 90s, "electoral interventionism" needs to be thrashed out. Why is so much of it selective? Why do western governments (for they are the prime interferers) that claim to be fostering democracy take only one side, rather than being above the fray? Why are only certain countries picked? Georgia, but not Azerbaijan. Serbia, but not Croatia. Zimbabwe, but not Egypt.

Of course, it is a travesty to suggest, as some commentators do, that critics of this interventionism support dictators, despise their courageous opponents, or are ideological cynics. The issue is how foreign power is used and with what motives. More constructively, we ought to discuss alternatives.

Calling for transparency and for "spies to keep out", as Timothy Garton Ash did in these pages recently, is not enough. The whole idea that foreign governments, with or without their intelligence agencies, should be involved so directly in choosing targets has to be questioned.

The major role should go to the United Nations. For all its flaws, including the fact that it is often manipulated by the big powers itself, the UN is the only international institution with credible impartiality. Can it be empowered to work through a genuinely representative management board to foster electoral practice around the world? Will the west give money, but not insist on control?

The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance also has a reputation for fairness. It needs better funding. The Council for Europe could do more. There are many options, but the key point is this: democracy is too important to be left to individual governments with special agendas.


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