Ukraine's Waiting Masses


Los Angeles Time

December 1, 2004

Events in Ukraine seem to get better or worse with each passing hour. One constant is the round-the-clock street protests that continue in peace on both sides of massed police lines. Just as encouraging as that nonviolence is the willingness of both sides to accept outside help in resolving a fraud-ridden Nov. 21 presidential election.

Decades of rule from Moscow by czars, Stalin and his successors did nothing to prepare Ukraine for democracy. The country has been independent of the Soviet Union for just 13 years, not a long time to build the institutions of a free state. Yet both sides so far have avoided blood in the streets and let parliament, the supreme court and mediators consider solutions.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus are scheduled for talks today with the contending factions. Both men also met last week in Kiev, the capital, with the officially declared winner of the election, Viktor Yanukovich; outgoing President Leonid D. Kuchma; and the man independent observers, including U.S. monitors, believe really won the most votes, Viktor Yushchenko.

Poland's courageous struggle to escape the Soviet yoke in the 1980s should be an inspiration to followers of Yushchenko, who is more oriented toward the West and economic liberalization than Yanukovich. The former leader of Poland's Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa, traveled to Kiev to support Yushchenko. Lithuania, like Ukraine, became independent in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has joined NATO and the European Union, something Yushchenko's backers seek for Urkaine.

The U.S. has not publicly taken sides in the dispute, except to say that vote-rigging made Yanukovich's alleged victory illegitimate. President Bush on Tuesday again urged nonviolence. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who campaigned for Yanukovich and is worried about a Western-leaning nation on the Russian border, also has urged calm. Yanukovich's support comes mostly from eastern Ukraine, where Moscow is a strong influence. Ukraine imports about 90% of its oil and nearly that much of its natural gas, mostly from Russia, which will remain a dominant force in the region's politics and economy no matter who succeeds Kuchma.

Statements by Putin and Kuchma this week, in which they signaled their willingness for a new election, offer hope that the standoff can be resolved without further talk of splitting the nation, or worse. Yushchenko's supporters withdrew Tuesday from talks on ending the crisis. The withdrawal might have been a tactical move to increase the pressure on Kuchma and Yanukovich. The Polish and Lithuanian leaders, assisted by a top European Union official, should try today to get both sides back to the negotiating table, and keep the protests peaceful.