The Ukrainian election story has everything—a little bit of the Cold War, echoes of Tiananmen Square, parallels with Poland's Solidarity movement, and perhaps a hint of last month's U.S. presidential election.
"The country is severely divided as it stands," Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said after he returned from monitoring the November 21 runoff in Ukraine. "Some leaders in the eastern part of the country are talking about dividing the country. Clearly, the election divided it absolutely down the center, between the red and the blue states, to use the analogy from the United States."
The division in Ukraine goes back 350 years. In 1654, when Ukrainians were fighting Polish rule, a Cossack leader named Bohdan Khmelnitsky swore allegiance to the Russian czar. Since then, Ukrainians have been dominated by Russia.
Ukraine's east is mostly Russian-speaking, Orthodox in religion, and strongly pro-Russian. Most people in Ukraine's west speak Ukrainian and adhere to a church that acknowledges the authority of the Roman Catholic pope. Western Ukrainians are intensely nationalistic and distrustful of Russia.
In the November runoff, the east voted for Viktor Yanukovich, a favorite of Moscow. Western Ukraine voted for Viktor Yushchenko, who favors stronger ties with Europe and the rest of the West. Yanukovich, the current president's hand-picked successor, was officially declared the election's winner.
But election observers spotted massive fraud. According to Nelson Ledsky of the National Democratic Institute, observers "reported that the rigged voting was in the neighborhood of over 1 million extra votes." Yushchenko's supporters massed in the streets of Kiev, demanding that the results be annulled. It became orange versus blue, with orange being the color of the media-savvy Yushchenko protesters, blue the color of the pro-Yanukovich government supporters. Apparently, in the post-Soviet era, nobody wants to be red.
Ukraine's "orange revolution" is a genuine outpouring of popular sentiment for freedom and justice. It's a media-savvy revolution, almost like a democracy festival, aimed at winning the sympathy of Europeans and Americans.
Both the European Union and the United States denounced the runoff as fraudulent. Secretary of State Colin Powell was the most direct, saying, "We cannot accept this result as legitimate, because it does not meet international standards and because there has not been an investigation of the numerous and credible reports of fraud and abuse." Powell threatened: "If the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly, there will be consequences for our relationship."
President Vladimir Putin supported Yanukovich and warned the West to back off. Polish leader Lech Walesa showed up to support the protesters. Poles versus Russians—as it was in 1654.
The runoff brought Ukraine's division to a head. So how will it get resolved? Forget recounts. How about repeating the whole election? That's what Ukraine's Supreme Court has ordered, after it ruled that the runoff was invalid. On hearing the news, Yushchenko raised his arms in triumph before the orange-bedecked protesters in Kiev and said, "Today, Ukraine has turned to justice, democracy, and freedom."
The crowds on the streets of Kiev responded by defiantly singing Ukraine's national anthem. Whom were they defying? One sign, in English, read, "Putin: Hands off Ukraine!" In Ukraine, nationalism means resentment of Russia.
On December 1, Putin contemptuously declared, "A repeat of the second round would yield nothing." He asked, "Are you going to conduct it three, four, maybe 25 times?" Within days, the Supreme Court issued its order. It was a humiliating putdown for the fallen superpower.
Many Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians think that the protests in Kiev were orchestrated by the West and financed by American money. Putin has accused the United States of pursuing a "dictatorial" foreign policy, packaged, he said, in "beautiful, pseudo-democratic phraseology."
President Bush did not return the insult, despite pleas from Ukrainian protesters to take their side. "If he wore an orange tie, people here would be crying," one protester told The New York Times. But Bush's comments have been noticeably more guarded than the secretary of State's. Bush is eager to preserve a good relationship with Putin, a key ally in the war on terror. Bush said on December 2, "We will continue to monitor and be involved in a process that encourages there to be a peaceful resolution to this issue."
With the Supreme Court's decision, the outcome seems inevitable. "Yushchenko is going to be president of Ukraine," former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke said. "One way or another, it's going to happen."
This election represents a big leap for Ukrainians. After centuries of Russian domination, they are deciding on whether their nation's future lies with the West or the East.
A victory for Yushchenko would confirm the West's increasing influence in Ukraine at the expense of Russia—something Western leaders may not want to celebrate for fear of reviving Cold War tensions and of feeding Russia's ancient paranoia about being encircled and threatened by the West.