Exporting the Ukraine Miracle

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

One of the most inspiring events of 2004 happened on the last weekend of the year: the election of pro-Western democrat Viktor Yushchenko, who had to overcome everything from poisoning to voter fraud in order to claim the presidency of Ukraine. The triumph of the Orange Revolution should dispel the quaint notion still prevalent in many Western universities and foreign ministries that democracy is a luxury good suitable only for rich countries with a tradition of liberalism stretching back centuries. Ukraine fits no one’s criteria of a promising democracy: Its per capita income of $5,400 a year is lower than Algeria’s or Turkmenistan’s; it has a history of despotism and corruption and a short history of independence. The only less-likely democracy is Afghanistan. Yet Ukraine, like Afghanistan, held free elections this year. Apparently no one bothered to tell the people of these countries that they weren’t ready for freedom.

These revolutions reveal the hollowness of the cliche that “democracy can’t be imposed by outsiders.” True, but outsiders can help committed democrats overcome internal obstacles. Sometimes, when dealing with an entrenched dictatorship, this requires military intervention of the kind that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. More brittle regimes can be brought down by their own people, but even they often need a little external shove.

In Ukraine, the U.S. government spent $58 million on democracy promotion in the last two years. European states and various nongovernmental organizations, such as George Soros’ International Renaissance Foundation, contributed millions more. These donations raised the ire of anti-democrats like Vladimir Putin and Pat Buchanan, who conveniently overlooked the far more generous support given to Yushchenko’s opponent, Viktor Yanukovich, by Moscow and Kiev.

There was nothing nefarious about the U.S. intervention in Ukraine, which was designed to promote democracy, not any particular candidate. A quick glance at its website shows that the National Endowment for Democracy handed out grants such as $399,968 for trade union education, $50,000 to conduct monthly public opinion surveys, $32,000 to train secondary school teachers and $50,000 to maintain a website that analyzes Ukrainian media. Pretty innocuous stuff, but it can have a powerful effect in a closed society. For instance, the American Bar Assn. spent $400,000 to train Ukrainian judges in election law. Among those who attended its seminars were five judges of the Ukrainian Supreme Court who voted to overturn the fraudulent results of the Nov. 21 balloting and to hold the revote that led to Yushchenko’s triumph. NATO has also spent a good deal of money to train Ukrainian officers over the last decade as part of its Partnership for Peace initiative. This Western education, which includes instruction in human rights, was one reason why the Ukrainian military refused to move against pro-democracy demonstrators.


Notwithstanding the Dec. 26 election, the Orange Revolution is hardly complete. The West should offer expedited NATO and European Union membership to consolidate democracy in Ukraine.

In the meantime, we need to apply elsewhere the lessons of Ukraine, which are also the lessons of Georgia, Serbia, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Poland, Lithuania and other countries where despotic regimes have been toppled since the original “people power” revolution swept the Philippines in 1986. An obvious candidate for a similar transformation is Iran. Even as Iranian students have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest against their oppressors, and Iranian exiles in Los Angeles have beamed TV and radio programming into their homeland, the U.S. government has largely stood on the sidelines. In 2003, the National Endowment for Democracy supported 23 programs in Ukraine worth $1.9 million. In Iran there were only two pitiful programs worth $55,000.

This disparity, which also exists for other pro-democracy groups, is perverse because the Iranian regime poses a far bigger threat to the West than Ukraine ever did. (The Ukrainians actually sent troops to join the coalition in Iraq, while the Iranians are trying to sabotage our efforts there.) It’s hard to think of a higher priority than the overthrow of the mullahs, who are determined to add nuclear weapons to their arsenal of terror.

If we’re serious about liberating Iran -- and that’s a big “if” because regime change is not official Bush policy -- we’ll need to rethink the current sanctions regime, which hasn’t done anything to dislodge the mullahocracy. The Committee on the Present Danger, a hawkish advocacy group, suggests keeping some sanctions while reestablishing diplomatic ties and lowering barriers for cultural exchanges. The resulting access could be used to help the forces of freedom in Iran.

Democracy in Iran? Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? But so, until just a few weeks ago, did democracy in Ukraine.