Let My People Go

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

December 4, 2004

KIEV, Ukraine Here's a suggestion for President Bush from the protesters behind the democratic "orange revolution" here: Wear an orange tie.

"If he wore an orange tie, people here would be crying," said Yuri Maluta, a protester from Lviv. "It would show that the American president supports democracy here."

The request says something about the lighthearted and pro-American spirit on the streets. Since my father grew up in what is now southwestern Ukraine, I decided to come here to join my people - and I found that waging revolution has rarely been such fun.

Young people enveloped in orange scarves, hats and ribbons alternately chant slogans for freedom, boogie to rock music, eat oranges, warm up and flirt at McDonald's, and disappear into their downtown "tent city" to make love, not war.

The protest organizers have placed gorgeous young women in the vanguard of confrontations with troops, so the troops will be too dazzled to club them.

Most Ukrainians love the U.S., and to be an American here - any American - is to be a rock star. Protesters overhear me speaking English and line up to ask me to autograph their orange ribbons with a big "U.S.A."

Yet for all the giddiness among the protesters here, particularly after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in their favor yesterday, this is as much about Russia as it is about Ukraine. And the first thing to say is that Vladimir Putin has behaved utterly disgracefully.

Mr. Putin seems to regard the Ukrainians as Russia's serfs, bound to obey the will of their master. Mr. Putin was a co-conspirator with Ukraine's outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, to tilt the campaign and fix the election in favor of the pro-Moscow candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, whose criminal history (he served almost four years for robbery and assault as a young man) would make him a fine Putin stooge.

Mr. Putin visited Ukraine twice during the campaign to help Mr. Yanukovich, used the Russian news media to promote him and then congratulated him publicly before the results of the stolen election had even been completely counted. President Bush and other Western leaders need to make it clear to Mr. Putin that he has no right to extend his quasi dictatorship to other peoples.

Sure, it's traumatic for the Russians to have seen their country sink from a superpower to a third-rate economy whose old colonies are now busy joining NATO. But Mr. Putin has undermined Russian democracy, brutalized Chechnya and barely helped in curbing weapons of mass destruction. We don't need to be so solicitous of such a bully.

I was among the crowds in Independence Square when images of Mr. Putin were shown on the huge screens. The crowd yelled a deafening "boo." We should be joining in.

Colin Powell strongly denounced the rigged election, and Ukrainians will remember that American support with gratitude for a long time to come. But Mr. Bush and the White House haven't been as outspoken as either Mr. Powell or the Europeans, and that's a mistake.

Mr. Bush is working through the Europeans, and especially the Poles, to achieve a solution, and he may fear that too public an American role would anger the Russians and revive the cold war. Those are fair concerns.

But this is the moment of truth for Ukraine, when Mr. Putin is trying to thwart the challenger, Viktor Yushchenko, by squelching a democratic election, and we need to stand foursquare with the democrats.

"Bush has to push more strongly and decisively on Ukraine to be democratic," said Bogdan Prysyazhnyuk, a young lawyer who is backing the orange revolution.

"The Europeans are doing something, much more than Bush is," noted Natalya Slobodyan, a journalism student who, like many young women, has dyed her hair orange. That's a common view on the street, where the Europeans are seen as standing up to Mr. Putin. Mr. Bush's behind-the-scenes role is less appreciated.

I'm glad that Europe is finally getting its act together, after bungling the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990's and studiously ignoring the catastrophe in Darfur this year. But when a historic tide is running in our favor, our president should be riding it at least abreast of the Europeans, not cheering them from the shore.

Or he might at least choose an orange tie.