To hear officials in Washington tell it, the Bush administration was
merely trying to support the burgeoning civil society in Ukraine when it
funneled $57.8 million to the former Soviet republic over the last two years.
But the governments in Kiev and Moscow, using classic Cold War terms,
have lambasted the United States for spending millions of dollars to influence
Ukraine's presidential elections.
The complicated truth, analysts say, is that in Ukraine, where civil
society has eroded over the last decade under the quasi-authoritarian, corrupt
government of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, the fine line between
promoting democracy and meddling in the country's internal affairs often
A number of U.S. government-sponsored and private organizations --
among them, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and U.S. Agency
for International Development -- spent millions of American taxpayers'
dollars to aid Ukrainian groups that eventually helped bring about the Orange
Revolution. Thousands of protesters poured into the streets, leading to
overturning suspect results favoring Ukraine's pro-Kremlin government
candidate Viktor Yanukovych over Viktor Yushchenko, who was backed by the pro-
"Our candidate is the Ukrainian people, and we're supporting their right
to a free and fair vote," said one State Department official, speaking on
condition of anonymity. The State Department spends about $1 billion a year to
support pro-democracy activities worldwide.
Anatol Lieven, an expert on the former Soviet Union at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, says the donor organizations got caught up
in the rift between those in Ukraine who staunchly support the country's
increasingly authoritarian government and those who want the nation of 49
million people to become a Western-style democracy -- and are, by default,
associated with the opposition.
As a result, supporting "a free and fair vote" inadvertently became
tantamount to backing the opposition, Lieven said.
U.S. support of "voter education initiatives, youth activist groups and
parallel counts has favored ... Yushchenko," said Pavel Erochkine, an expert
on Ukraine at the Centre for Global Studies, a British think tank.
This has enraged Yanukovych, Ukraine's prime minister, who accused
Washington of "financing Yushchenko's campaign."
What makes the United States particularly vulnerable to criticism of
trying to manipulate Ukraine's elections is its position toward the former
Soviet state, analysts say. The Bush administration sees Ukraine as a
potential NATO member and a buffer zone between Russia and the West, while
Russia seeks to re-establish its traditional hegemony over the Texas-size
Officials at American organizations that ran programs in Ukraine say
their only political agenda was making the election democratic and fair.
"All the effort that has been made on the part of organizations like ours
and on behalf of the U.S. government was to support the process, not an
outcome," said Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute,
which spent approximately $2 million training Ukrainians on how to organize
political parties, how to monitor elections and, in coordination with Freedom
House, bringing 1,000 election observers from 16 countries in the region.
Wollack said his institute offered training to individuals and political
parties "across the political spectrum."
But groups and individuals who support the Ukrainian government and trust
its ability to hold elections usually see no need in parallel counts and
independent observers, and rarely apply and participate in such training, said
Fiona Hill, an expert on the former Soviet Union at the Brookings Institution
and former director for strategic planning at the Eurasia Foundation, a group
that promotes democracy in the region.
"People self-select, and this self-selection is portrayed (by the
Ukrainian government) as direction, that somebody is sitting in the State
Department orchestrating all this," Hill said. "No, they're not. They are
Election monitors trained by the National Democratic Institute "have been
subject of intimidation and harassment over the years," Wollack said. "It's
not easy when groups ... stand up and challenge actions by authorities, and
expose improper behavior of authorities. They have courageously done that."
John Kubiniec, Freedom House's regional director for Central and Eastern
Europe, said Ukrainian authorities have intimidated election observers his
group had trained. Kubiniec also said employees of Freedom House's Kiev office
are "being observed, our phones are tapped, our electronic communications
monitored, and we are being followed."
Here, Ukraine might be following the example of Russia, where President
Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB spy who energetically supported Yanukovych, has said
that groups promoting democracy that receive funds from overseas are foreign
spy cells in disguise.
"Putin and Yanukovych come from a very Soviet political culture; they
don't understand the concept of civil society," said Taras Kuzio, an expert on
Ukraine at George Washington University who monitored the Nov. 21 election and
will be an observer at the Dec. 26 rerun.
That gives all the more reason to the United States to continue funding
projects that promote democracy in the region, said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San
Carlos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.
"All of this activity is undertaken to help create a more secure and
stable world where the will of the people can be expressed through their
governments," Lantos said. "This is not merely altruistic, but also in the
interest of the United States."
Staff writer Anna Badkhen formerly reported for The Chronicle from Moscow.
© 2004 San Francisco Chronicle