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The run-off election for president in Ukraine is beginning to disintegrate into a madness that makes the post-2000 election battle in the United States look comparatively mellow. Official results show Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich winning by 3 percent over challenger Viktor Yushchenko, but Yushchenko has asked Ukraine’s Supreme Court for a new election in light of voting fraud. And, although the exact nature of the fraud is unclear, its extent appears to be substantial. Whatever the eventual outcome of the election, we hope that all factions abide by and respect the court’s ruling, since the integrity of both Ukraine’s fledgling democracy and its national unity is more important than the outcome of this particular election.
And plenty of factions have expressed an interest in the outcome of the election. Each of the three branches of Ukraine’s government has jumped headlong into the quagmire: the Parliament passed a series of non-binding resolutions declaring the election invalid, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma has endorsed a new vote, and the Supreme Court this week is hearing Yushchenko’s challenges. The international community, too, is weighing in, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government endorsing the election results and several diplomats from the European Union expressing implicit support for the Western-leaning Yushchenko.
To complicate matters, the vote has split the country down its geographic center, with all of its western provinces voting for Yushchenko and all of its southern and eastern provinces voting for Yanukovich. The potential for civil war has exploded in the past few days, since the legislatures of several eastern provinces have nearly unanimously approved holding referenda on provincial autonomy. Fortunately, both Yanukovich’s and Yushcenko’s supporters in Parliament, as well as President Kuchma, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solona, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have all stated their commitment to the unity of Ukraine. We hope that their words will not be lost on the partisan factions to whom partisan political power is a higher priority than is preventing the outbreak of civil war.
Most recently, aides for Yushchenko have alarmingly called for President Kuchma to fire Yanukovich immediately, or face criminal prosecution if he does not comply. Kuchma is correct to resist such rash moves; he has instead urged further discussion and compromise.
Most of the former Soviet states have chosen their path to the future—establishing Western-style democracies or drifting toward authoritarianism. Ukraine is now standing at a pivotal moment in its history in which it can choose to honor the rule of law, a foundational notion of Western order, or descend into political chaos. Though we badly want to see Yushchenko become president of Ukraine, establishing the rule of law as the basis of Ukraine’s political system will be more important than defeating Moscow’s candidate this time around.
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