Shoring Up Democracy

by Nathan Hamm on 11/24/2004 · 2 comments

The Electoral Commission has certified the results of the election and declared Yanukovych the winner. Admirably, the United States refuses to accept the results.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Wednesday the United States did not accept the results of the disputed presidential election in Ukraine as legitimate and called for immediate action.

“If the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly there will be consequences for our relationship,” Powell told reporters.

Pressed on what punitive action, if any, would be taken, Powell said: “At the moment we’re not taking any action. We want to see what the ultimate results are.”

Powell said it was time for Ukraine’s leaders to decide if they were on the side of democracy and respect the will of the people in addressing problems from last weekend’s election.

Compare this to the response to Azerbaijan’s presidential election last year.

Many on the left have criticized the Bush administration’s response to that election and claimed that Bush placed good relations with an oil-rich authoritarian ahead of democracy. I’ve consistently disagreed with that notion, and the response to not only the Ukrainian election, but also last November’s parliamentary election in Georgia (and the turmoil in Ajaria) help flesh out what I have long thought the Bush administration is up to.

Bush has wisely continued the broad range of exchange, education, aid, and political development programs of the Clinton administration in the former Soviet Union. I look at these programs as long-term investment strategies that prepare a country for a smoother transition to democracy in the future. As nice as it was to see the republics of the Soviet Union become democracies, the weakness of civil society institutions and political parties plus a culture of bribery have caused significant erosion of those early gains in most of the new states.

Running a blog that focuses heavily on Uzbekistan, I hear over and over again that the US should have nothing to do with the Karimov government. This strikes me as only achieving a sense of moral satisfaction; a prize that comes at the cost of leverage. Engagement has produced a variety of positive results, including the the release of political prisoners. More importantly, it allows us cultural contact that will hopefully equip Uzbekistan with tools to make a smooth transition to a liberal state with an open economy. Similar things are going on under US guidance the world over.

Now back to the issue at hand–supporting democracy. In planting these seeds of democracy, we have no good way of knowing when (or if…) we will see the fruits. Support of the US and Europe is important, but it is only part of the equation. Most important is that the people of a particularly country rise up and demand their voices be heard. Governments in the West are in the difficult position of deciding when to drop their silence, step forward, and declare they are fully behind those demanding democracy.

It’s not easy. In Azerbaijan, it was fairly obvious the vote was tainted. It was also fairly obvious that Azeris were not rising up in the numbers needed to force their government’s hand. Georgians did a year ago and Ukrainians are now.

Bush has shown a willingness to turn on allies like Eduard Shevardnadze and now Leonid Kuchma with lightning quickness when there’s a chance to advance democracy. He’s doing so again and that the US has come out so forcefully against the results of the election is a good sign.

It can be safely assumed that this is a calculated risk. The power is seen to be with the people, and the Bush administration surely feels that potentially bad relationship with a possible Yanukovich government is a cost worth paying. And, over the past year, when the US has come out strongly against undemocratic leaders in the former Soviet Union, Russia has shown a tendency to flip-flop and get with the program. Take it as a good sign that Powell has already talked to Sergei Lavrov.

UPDATE: Russia will not roll over as easily this time, and I really didn’t expect they would. Ukraine is a much bigger fish than Georgia (about 10 times bigger…), so this makes sense.

The story also has the rather funny complaint from Russia that I mentioned here about US interference in Ukraine. Maybe I’m nuts, but I would think Putin basically hitting the campaign trail for Yanukovich is more intering.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Tatyana November 24, 2004 at 6:56 pm

Nathan, that’s because you don’t understand Russian mentality on this issue. Ukraine in average Russian’s mind is still part of greater Russia, land where Russia was born as a state (Kyevskaya Rus’).The other historical name for Ukraine is Malorossia (often used by Gogol’, f.ex.)
Western parts of Ukraine are always looked at with suspicion from Russia – as separatists and “bourgeois nationalists”, from Stalin’s times on.
So this reaction is very typical.
It’s as if election was in Scotland and US express it’s opinion about it – don’t you think UK would be pissed?

Nathan Hamm November 24, 2004 at 8:15 pm

No, I get how Russia thinks about it, but there’s also the very Westphalian way that us West Europeans look at things. It’s simply inconceivable to me that a head of a European or Ango state would actually go to another country to basically stump for the preferred candidate. It doesn’t matter what the history is. Even if I understand why it is, I can’t help but look at it as an agressive and provocative move.

And, when it’s very obvious that Russia engaged in some pretty heavy interference in Ukraine’s election, it’s more than a little ironic to hear them accuse us of “unprecedented interference.”

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