- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

The people of Ukraine have been blessed this Christmas and New Year’s season with one of the most precious gifts of all: democracy. On Sunday, the day after Christmas, Ukraine held again a presidential election that was notably freer and fairer than the presidential run-off of Nov. 21.

The results of the election are dramatically different than the past vote which was deemed illegitimate by Ukraine’s Supreme Court. With 99.5 percent of the vote counted, Viktor Yushchenko won about 52 percent of the vote, and his challenger, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was said to win the previous tainted vote, lost with about 44 percent of the vote. Mr. Yanukovych has pledged to challenge the results, and the election can be contested in the courts until Jan. 15.

International observers were supportive of the election, though, indicating that a challenge by Mr. Yanukovych will probably not prevail. “The Ukrainian elections have moved substantially closer to meet” the standards of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Bruce George, the head of the organization’s monitoring mission.

While the people of Ukraine are probably feeling fortunate to see the democratic process vindicated, they should be commended for making the results possible through their tireless defense of transparency. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians camped out in the streets, particularly in the capital Kiev, to protest the November election amid freezing weather and snow.

While Mr. Yanukovych had supported a forceful response to the protesters, his main supporter, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, fortunately realized the danger of such an approach. Passions were strong on both sides, with much of the Russian-speaking, industrial, eastern part of the country staunchly in favor Mr. Yanukovych. Still, the people of Ukraine showed both determination and restraint, and so far the electoral crisis has been handled without violence. Also, Ukraine’s democratic institutions demonstrated an independence that many thought did not exist. Not only did the Supreme Court call for a new run-off election, the Parliament passed a no-confidence motion against the Yanukovych government on Dec. 1.

Sunday’s presidential election helps to consolidate democracy in a strategically important but still vulnerable part of the world. Ukraine’s orange revolution, so called because of the orange scarves that Mr. Yushchenko and his supporters have been wearing, follows Georgia’s Rose Revolution of last year, which brought the pro-Western opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili to power. Both Ukraine and Georgia are important transit points of Caspian and Russian oil and gas to Europe and beyond.

Countries like Ukraine will also help determine the confines of the European Union and, possibly, NATO. Under Mr. Yushchenko’s Western friendly leadership, Ukraine could conceivably join both the union and the strategic alliance. Such a prospect makes Russian President Vladimir Putin nervous, as he sees his country’s sphere of influence shrink through elections in neighboring countries. Mr. Putin overplayed his hand in supporting the marred election that brought the pro-Kremlin Mr. Yanukovych to power.

Still, Mr. Putin backed away from brinkmanship as he witnessed the Ukrainian people’s overwhelming defense of Mr. Yushchenko and democracy. After prematurely backing a Yanukovych victory and making fiery statements, Mr. Putin let his better judgement prevail and said he would be willing to work with Mr. Yushchenko, should he win the new election. However, Mr. Putin’s words and actions call into greater question his belief in the value of democracy, and put on edge Russia’s neighbors, particularly Georgia. Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush nimbly coordinated their responses to the Ukrainian crisis, with Mr. Powell taking the more aggressive stance and Mr. Bush making more conciliatory statements, with an eye towards maintaining good relations with Russia, which remain vital to U.S. interests.

Mr. Yushchenko will have to work hard to maintain ties with Russia while also reaching out to Europe and the United States. Not only will Mr. Yushchenko be dealing with a split Parliament, much of which is doggedly pro-Russian, but Ukraine still depends on Russia for energy resources. If Mr. Yushchenko wants eastern Ukraine to be governable, he will have to make some compromises. Fortunately, the leading eastern city of Donetsk has not said it will protest a Yushchenko victory.

All the same, now is a time for celebration in Ukraine. The people’s will is prevailing and the future looks bright — and orange.

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