Is Freedom Still on the March in Ukraine?

Had things gone as planned, the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine would have provided a perfect occasion for President Bush to declare that freedom is once again on the march. However, the first place finish of Viktor Yanukovych’s Moscow-backed Party of the Regions has robbed him of that opportunity.

Though the Bush administration has been quick to praise Ukraine for successfully holding “free and fair” elections, it is also being forced to ask itself why — once again — its democracy promotion efforts are not bringing its preferred parties to power.

Yanukovych’s political gains are indeed a major setback to the progress made after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution gave democratic reformer Viktor Yushchenko the presidency. Russia has now moved a step closer to restoring its hegemony over the country, and the United States has once more proved inept at supporting indigenous democratic forces. Even before the final results were tallied, Yanukovych announced that his party’s victory would mark the end of Ukraine’s movement toward joining NATO.

In the West, Viktor Yanukovych is best known as Putin’s pawn. During the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, Yanukovych was defeated in spite of Moscow’s blatant attempts to install its unofficial representative into power. During that election, efforts to derail the democratic process — by poisoning Yushchenko and widespread voter fraud — backfired. Instead, the world cheered as tens of thousands of orange-clad Ukrainians took to the streets in support of Yushchenko’s revolution and Ukraine’s flight from Moscow’s grasp.

But one election does not guarantee a stable — or friendly — democracy, as elections in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian Authority have made all too clear. Without the necessary institutional foundations and adequate support for those who are truly committed to democratic reform, the outcomes can be dangerous. Vladimir Putin, of course, knows this as well as anyone, and he never gave up hope of keeping hold of Ukraine by getting Yanukovych into power.

For Russia, maintaining a firm grip on Ukraine is of mammoth importance. Ukraine sits on most of the pipelines that run from Russia to its number one energy buyer, the European Union. In 2004, 78 percent of Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe passed through Ukraine.

Since the Orange Revolution, Putin has capitalized on skyrocketing oil and gas prices, turning the country’s energy assets into a political weapon to restore Russia’s Soviet-era prominence.

On January 1, Russia dramatically increased the price of natural gas to Ukraine and then cut the supply altogether when Ukraine refused to pay the new price. Under enormous pressure, Yushchenko made a deal with RosUkrEnergo, a shadowy energy trading company whose managing director’s registered residence is a dilapidated shack outside of Moscow — a story that practically shouts corruption and Russian influence.

Given that he rose to power on an anti-corruption, pro-Western platform, Yushchenko received searing criticism for putting Ukraine’s energy supply in the hands of such a dubious firm. Shortly after the deal was reached, a surprising parliamentary coalition of Moscow friendly parties and pro-Western reformers voted to sack the Yushchenko government. Support for Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions also increased, jumping from 17.5 percent in November 2005 to 27.4 percent in January 2006. Chief among these critics was Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister and Orange Revolution ally, whose party finished well ahead of Yuschenko’s in Sunday’s elections.

Today, Putin must be quite pleased. The energy crisis appears to have paid great political dividends by contributing to the election of a parliament that will have the power to reorient Ukraine away from the United States and Europe.

But the blame cannot be assigned entirely to Russia. The United States has not done its part to support Ukraine in the wake of its December 2004 elections. While President Bush rolled out the orange carpet during Yushchenko’s April 2005 White House visit, it took until March 25 — a day before Sunday’s parliamentary elections — for the United States to lift Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions, a move that could have provided a much- needed boost to Ukraine’s economy and to Yushchenko’s political future if made sooner.

The United States must now move quickly on a number of fronts to make up for lost time. First, Congress must expand — not cut — Freedom Support Act funding, which provides key assistance to democracy building and economic development efforts in the Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe.

Second, the United States needs to develop a strategy to help new democracies struggling with high levels of corruption, as Ukraine does. If implemented properly, the free trade agreement that the Bush administration signed with Ukraine on Thursday will provide opportunities for economic engagement with Ukraine that can encourage transparency and sound business practices.

Third, the United States must encourage Ukraine to follow the path of the Baltic countries that liberalized their energy markets immediately after independence. This will provide Ukraine with greater freedom from Russian energy politics, as well as increase the competitiveness of the Ukrainian economy.

Most importantly, though, the Bush administration must finally learn the lesson that building stable and vibrant democracies — whether in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, or Africa — requires attention and support beyond the first election or two. It is not too late for the administration to correct its course on Ukraine, but time may be running out.

Lynn Tesser, Ph.D. has taught Eastern European politics at American University and Loyola University Chicago. Peter Ogden works on energy security issues at the Center for American Progress.

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Pete Ogden

Senior Fellow