Spreading Democracy in Ukraine


Feb 15, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on February 15, 2005.

After working to support democratic elections in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, President Bush now has an important opportunity to extend a hand of friendship to another fledgling democracy in Ukraine on his trip to Europe later this month.

By cultivating America's relationship with the new Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yushchenko, Bush can help democracy and liberty take root and grow strong in Ukraine. This will enable Ukraine to become not just a friend, but a close ally of the United States.

Ukraine offers Bush a chance to make the eloquent words about democracy in his inaugural address come to life with the eloquence of action. If the United States fails to quickly take advantage of this opportunity with a comprehensive strategy to promote freedom in Ukraine, America will send an inconsistent message about the importance of freedom around the world.

When Bush travels to Europe later this month he will reach out to allies in the European Union and NATO in an effort to encourage democracy and freedom as alternatives to tyranny and terror around the world. Ukraine will undoubtedly be a topic for discussion, and Bush's message regarding Ukraine should be positive, steadfast, supportive and understanding of Ukraine's geopolitical challenges.

Together with its European allies, the United States has an opportunity to promote Ukraine's integration into western security and economic institutions — namely NATO and eventually the European Union. These institutions need to be encouraged to send Ukraine a positive political signal that Ukraine would be welcome to join both organizations if it meets the criteria for membership. To date, this signal has not been sent, although both institutions have assisted Ukraine's reform efforts along the way.

Additional steps the United States can take to encourage democracy in Ukraine include: helping the new leadership to develop plans for specific reforms and setting timelines for progress; supporting the establishment of an independent media; backing reform of the justice and legal systems, including police forces; and increasing assistance to Western-oriented nongovernmental organizations in Ukraine. These steps should be fully coordinated with America's European allies.

America should also remind Yushchenko about the reform promises he made during his election campaign, and be available and open to providing counsel. The United States should increase the democracy-oriented programs toward Ukraine as well as the security-oriented programs that help strengthen Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Ukrainian democracy is still very fragile. The pro-Russian anti-reform forces that supported presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich could still hijack Ukraine's domestic and foreign policy. But Yushchenko, who was elected Jan. 23, declared at a recent Council of Europe meeting that Ukraine's future lies with Europe because “we, along with the people of Europe, belong to one civilization.”

Yushchenko also promised that he would protect Western and particularly European Union investments in Ukraine, a complete change of policy from his predecessor. Yet Yushchenko realizes Ukraine is dependent on Russia for energy supplies, and Ukraine's economy and trade are closely tied to Russia. So for pragmatic reasons, his first official state trip just one day after his inauguration was to Russia.

For the past 15 years, Ukraine has been at the crossroads of East and West, torn between developing closer ties with the United States, NATO, and the European Union to the West, and with Russia in the East. However, Ukraine under Kuchma did not behave like a European democracy since it won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Kuchma stymied Ukraine integration into the European community of nations by his corrupt and totalitarian tendencies, and by defaulting on a number of promises to bring about broader economic, defense and political reforms.

Similar to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvilli — the pro-reform, charismatic leader who came to follow after the Rose Revolution in September 2004 — Yushchenko appears very serious about embracing democracy and broader reforms. Starting with the weeding out of corrupt officials within the Ukrainian government who have paid homage to Kuchma over the past 10 years, Yushchenko appears to be making progress. His new cabinet is a dynamic team of pro-reform, pro-Western experienced practitioners who likely have the implementation of broad reforms at the top of their agenda.

The negative experiences the United States had with Ukraine under President Kuchma should not slow down efforts to improve relations between the two nations under Yushchenko. In addition to building democracy in the Middle East, America will benefit by building democracy in the middle of Eastern Europe.

Moroney is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

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