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Stop Already With The Is Ukraine Tilting East or West? Obsession
by Nadia McConnell & Irene Jarosewich
February 19, 2010

The myopic perspective of Western observers, analysts, and governments that the politics and governance of Ukraine must be seen always through some sort of Russia lens needs to come to an end. This tired, yet ingrained, starting point precludes an accurate analysis of Ukraine’s current political situation and retards the development of genuinely mature relations with Ukraine and, indeed, the region.

While the West continues handwringing, the democratic process has taken hold in Ukraine. The Ukrainian people are far ahead of their politicians in using the democratic process to pursue the independent and successful country they desire. The evidence is clear and consistent: the people of Ukraine, once free and independent, have sought democracy and fully participate in contested elections. The West needs to think outside the box into which Ukraine has been kept and abandon the old predispositions that have metastasized as the West adjusted to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

During the past 20 years, on each election day, a very high percentage of eligible voters in Ukraine cast ballots. On February 7, more than 69 percent of registered voters came out in frigid weather in what has been judged to be the most fair and transparent election to date. As with previous elections, analysis in the West gave only fleeting credit to the voters of Ukraine for once again validating the democratic process. Instead, the analysis wallowed in the simplistic conundrum of whether or not this election is a victory for the Kremlin, and a rejection of the allegedly U.S. inspired and funded Orange Revolution.

The West must recognize that the people of Ukraine have already done the hard work. They have reminded the world that the purpose of the Orange Revolution was the victory of the democratic process, a vote fair and non-coerced, not just the victory of a particular candidate. Repeatedly, Ukraine’s citizens have proven with dogged commitment that they are making the transition from tyranny to freedom. How many more election cycles is the West going to wait to see if Ukraine’s people have made their choice in favor of democracy before it offers Ukraine steadfast strategic support?

Unlike the West and Moscow, Ukraine’s voters are not obsessed with the East-West struggle. Rather, information from recent surveys conducted by the U.S.-based non-profit IFES indicate that the top three issues Ukrainian voters want the next President to address are jobs (71%), reducing inflation (56%), and reducing corruption (48%). The highly charged, politically sensitive issues most frequently addressed in Russian and Western media are of much lower concern to the people of Ukraine: the gas situation with Russia (17%), status of Russian language (9%), EU relations (3%), and NATO relations (1%).

The results in the recent presidential election were very close. Ukraine’s voters gave Viktor Yanukovych  48.9 percent of the vote and  Yulia Tymoshenko,  45.4 percent.  Indeed, in Ukraine, where ballots allow the electorate to vote against all eligible candidates, almost five percent of voters braved the weather specifically to vote against both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko. Mr. Yanukovych’s rather thin margin of victory and the fact that he did not receive a majority of all votes cast invites a deeper review.

In opinion surveys prior to the elections, both candidates received higher disapproval than approval ratings. Yanukovych won despite having a negative rating of 55 percent, Tymoshenko had a negative rating of 67 percent. The election provided no solid mandate and clearly many voters cast their votes for a candidate with whom they were not enamored The totality of the election results show that Ukrainian voters are committed to their responsibilities as citizens in a democracy, as well as discriminating in their choices. Civil society in Ukraine is maturing fundamentally and politicians in Ukraine, and the West, ignore this maturing constituency at their peril.

In the near future, the United States will welcome Ukraine’s new president, Viktor Yanukovych, to Washington. The exact date of such a visit and if the new president will be accorded an official State visit or a working visit is unknown. To demonstrate the respect and understanding of the United States for Ukraine’s strategic importance to the West, the visit should be of the highest level. However, regardless of the type of visit, there is no doubt that President Yanukovych will make a stop at a small plaza at 22nd and P streets in Northwest Washington. He will then do that which every official from Ukraine has done, political party or personal past notwithstanding: he will lay flowers and make a speech at the foot of the monument to poet Taras Shevchenko, an undisputed icon and hero of Ukraine.  Who was Shevchenko? Why is a visit to his monument near 22nd and P streets obligatory for all Ukrainians who come to Washington?

Taras Shevchenko was born a serf in Ukraine in 1814 and orphaned as a child. When he was 24, artists and poets who recognized his tremendous talents and creative gifts bought Shevchenko his freedom. He was welcomed into the highest creative and academic circles in his country and within St. Petersburg and Moscow as a poet, writer, painter, extraordinary visionary and thinker. He established friendships with intellectual leaders from throughout the Russian Empire and Europe. However, after only seven years of freedom, Shevchenko was sent into exile for writing against the tyranny of the Russian tsars and for protesting the enslavement of Ukraine.  A prolific writer, Shevchenko was forbidden to write or paint by direct order of the tsar.  Shevchenko, a humanist and an unflinching defender of freedom, opposed tyranny, serfdom and enslavement and continues to be celebrated by the people of Ukraine, as well as internationally. Outside of Ukraine, he has been honored with more than 600 monuments in more than 22 countries. Taras Shevchenko was not anti-Russian. He was Ukrainian, a Ukrainian who spoke with hope about the possibilities of his beloved country’s future.

So, if he walks to the side of the monument, Mr. Yanukovych will find the following inscription, in Ukrainian: “When will Ukraine have its Washington with fair and just laws? Someday we will!”

In our nation’s capital, these words are etched on a monument.  Yet in Ukraine, since Shevchenko first wrote these words in 1857, they have been etched on people’s souls. These words still express, unequivocally, eloquently and directly, the goal of the people of Ukraine and help give context to Ukraine’s civil society today. Not only do Ukraine’s elected leaders need to pay attention, it is time also for the West to get the message.

The West must judge Ukraine on its own merits. Active support should be provided for the new president’s stated objective for Ukraine and Russia to have cordial relations, yet for Ukraine to set its own course. Since Ukraine cannot change its geography, good relations with neighbors are imperative. However, Bonn, Brussels, and Washington need to cast aside their fear that Ukraine pursuing separate interests from Russia is a threat, just because Moscow claims it is a threat. Now that Western capitals have what pre-election analysis claimed is a pro-Russia, or at least a Russia-neutral, president in Ukraine, a president who will not inconvenience Western relations with Russia, it is time to offer Ukraine, and its people their due and actively support the further development of civil society and thereby encourage the improved functioning of a democratic state.

The people of Ukraine understand that in order for their country to become political and economically stable, the prevalence of widespread corruption has to be eliminated. The West must help the people of Ukraine receive their fair and just laws. We need to help Ukraine’s maturing civil society develop the political mechanisms to help keep political officials accountable.  When a country seeks to transform itself from a dictatorship into a democracy, making sincere and consistent efforts to emulate our values, we should support these efforts with conviction, regardless of what their neighbors think.

Nadia McConnell     is the president of the Washington-based U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and Co-Founder of the Baltic-Black-Caspian-Sea Initiative. Irene Jarosewich, a New York-based writer and editor, has been a consultant with the foundation for two decades.


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