Monday, December 13, 2004

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine is first and foremost the property of the people who are conducting it. They turned out in the streets of Kiev by the hundreds of thousands to protest fraudulent election results, and their persistence and numbers opened up enough cracks in the system to pave the way for a new vote on Dec. 26. Let’s not mistake this for anything but what it is: raw courage in support of freedom.

The peaceful course of the revolution was by no means a certainty. When, just after the election as crowds were gathering in the cold, opposition candidate and unjustly declared loser Victor Yushchenko showed up in the parliament for a highly unofficial swearing-in as president, things were getting pretty sporty, as a friend of mine put it. Would the government of President Leonid Kuchma, who had sought to deliver the office to his prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, allow the protests to continue or try a violent crackdown? Where would the security services’ loyalties lie? What was the game plan of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had strongly supported Mr. Yanukovych? As it happened, the authoritarian facade of the Ukraine government cracked wide open at the first fissure. With the demonstrations, a political space opened up for those who had been afraid to say or do anything in opposition to Mr. Kuchma’s wishes, including a number of government officials. The fraudulent result was overturned by means whose own legitimacy could not fairly be challenged.

But if this was “people power” on the streets of Kiev, let us not shrink from another set of relevant facts: that the Orange Revolution is something proponents of democracy, liberalization and political reform in the United States and Europe sought and worked for in Ukraine and supported morally and materially. The opposition was the only hope for securing political freedom in Ukraine, and this fact was well understood by Ukrainian as well as Western non-governmental organizations and party-building enterprises active there. And at an official level, when the time came, the European Union and its member governments as well as the United States stepped up as one to demand a fair and peaceful resolution.

Some have sought to use the fact of this Western and particularly American support to discredit the revolution as made-in-Washington. In the first place, it wasn’t. The support the opposition received was nothing next to the array of assets the Kuchma government had at its disposal in rigging the outcome, from Mr. Yanukovych’s monopoly of media coverage to outright ballot-box stuffing.

Second, while getting your supporters to turn out in the streets in massive numbers requires organization, organization alone doesn’t bring people out: They have to believe in the cause, as the demonstrators clearly did.

Finally, what’s striking about this charge is its rather complacent indifference to the freedom of Ukrainians and their wish to select their political leaders democratically. Apparently, if an anti-U.S. posture requires an anti-democratic stance (at least with regard to the freedom of others), that’s not too high a price for some people to pay.

Very well, but let’s not take their bait by downplaying our support for the freedom-fighters in Ukraine and elsewhere. Freedom and democracy have made enormous strides over the past decades in no small part because of the unambiguous moral support of friends in places where they already flourish — and not just moral support but material support as well.

The next test for the Western governments that have spoken out so effectively in behalf of democracy in Ukraine will come when a democratically elected government committed to political reform and liberalization there seeks to bind itself more closely to Western institutions, most notably NATO and the European Union. Some in Europe and the United States worry that Ukraine is a bridge too far for integration into the West. They cite the concerns of Moscow about its “near abroad” and Ukraine’s large ethnic Russian population, as well as the long and difficult road of modernization Ukraine has to travel to bring itself fully into alignment with the West.

These worries will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the debate over the integration of Central and Eastern European countries into the West. But who can deny that access to Western institutions, especially NATO and the EU, has been an enormous catalyst for political reform and the consolidation of democracy in these countries? The EU rightly prides itself on its ability to “export” democracy to its neighbors through the power of attraction — its accession process. And NATO has typically been the first door though which these new democracies have walked, an indication of the importance of security.

It would be a tragedy if the courageous Orange Revolutionaries, so strongly and rightly supported by friends of freedom in the West, subsequently knocked on the doors of Western institutions only to find them barred. Freedom is perishable. We who enjoy it need to maintain our commitment to it.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide