Like "humanitarian interventionism," which has been used more than once recently as a cover for going to war, "electoral interventionism" has become a tool in Washington's arsenal for overseas manipulation. The instruments of democracy are used selectively to topple particular rulers, and only when a US-friendly successor candidate or regime has been groomed. Countless elections in the post-Soviet space have been distorted by incumbents to a degree that probably reversed the result, usually by unfair use of state television and sometimes by direct ballot rigging. Boris Yeltsin's constitutional referendum in Russia in 1993 and his re-election in 1996 were early cases. Azerbaijan's presidential vote last year was also highly suspicious.
Yet after none of those polls did the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the main international observer body, or the US and other Western governments, make the furious noise they are producing today. The decision to protest appears to depend mainly on realpolitik and whether the challengers or the incumbent are considered more "pro-Western" or "pro-market." Or, as in Azerbaijan, Washington is happy with the antidemocratic policies maintained by the Aliyev dynasty because it is friendly to US oil companies.
In Ukraine, Yushchenko got the Western nod, and floods of money poured in to groups supporting him. This one-sided intervention is playing with fire. Not only is the country geographically and culturally divided--a recipe for partition or even civil war--it is also an important neighbor to Russia. Putin has been clumsy, but to accuse Russia of imperialism because it shows close interest in adjoining states and the Russian-speaking minorities who live there is a wild exaggeration.
Ukraine has been turned into a geostrategic matter not by Moscow but by Washington, which refuses to abandon its cold war policy of encircling Russia and seeking to pull every former Soviet republic into its orbit. The US campaign against Yanukovich accelerated this summer after outgoing President Leonid Kuchma reversed policy and said he no longer aspired to NATO membership for Ukraine. Yanukovich adopted that line.
Many Ukrainians certainly want a more democratic system. The vast bulk of the demonstrators in Kiev are undoubtedly genuine. Their enthusiasm and determination are palpable. But they do not reflect nationwide sentiment, and the support for Yanukovich in eastern Ukraine is also genuine. Nor are we watching a struggle between freedom and authoritarianism, as is romantically alleged. Yushchenko served as prime minister under Kuchma, and some of his backers are also linked to the brutal industrial clans who manipulated Ukraine's post-Soviet privatization. On some issues Yushchenko may be a better potential president than Yanukovich, but to suggest that he would provide a sea change in Ukrainian politics and economic management is naïve. Putin is not inherently against a democratic Ukraine, however authoritarian he is in his own country. What concerns him is instability, the threat of anti-Russian regimes on his borders and American mischief.
The European Union has been weak and divided, missing the chance to exert a strong European line in the face of US strategic meddling. It should give Ukraine the option of future membership rather than the feeble "action plan" of cooperation currently on offer. Adapting its legislation and practice to EU norms would set Ukraine on a surer path to irreversible reform than anything that either Yushchenko or Yanukovich would do. The EU should also make a public statement that it sees no value in NATO membership for Ukraine, and those EU members who belong to NATO will not support it. At a stroke this would calm Russia's legitimate fears and send a signal to Washington not to go on inflaming a purely European issue.
Jonathan Steele December 2, 2004
Ukraine's Untold Story | The Nation