Stand by Ukraine’s Struggle

Matthew Spence is a director of the Truman National Security Project and is writing a book about American democracy promotion in Russia and Ukraine. Website:

Democracy is not born overnight. But democracy captures our collective imagination in snapshots: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the lone student standing down Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square, Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president of South Africa. These affirm our faith in the potential of freedom to triumph under fire. A potentially stolen election -- as has been playing out in Ukraine -- could have the opposite effect, suggesting how uncertain democracy’s future is, and how little outsiders can do to support it.

We must not draw that lesson from Ukraine. Last Sunday’s corrupt and condemned presidential runoff election not only threatens Ukrainian democracy but also the future of democracy promotion by the West. Regardless of who ultimately assumes power in Kiev, we must not conclude that assisting democracy is a fool’s errand.

Americans are developing democracy promotion fatigue. In Iraq, we face the hard truth that democracy is more than the absence of dictatorship. American voters rarely have much tolerance for a policy requiring patience, struggle and disappointment. During the campaign, President Bush downplayed the hard work of democracy promotion, while John Kerry seemed to avoid the phrase altogether. Even the foreign aid community increasingly speaks of supporting “development” and “good government,” as “democracy” becomes a four-letter word.


At the precise moment when we are looking for success in promoting democracy, Ukraine has dealt us yet another blow. Certainly, Ukrainian democracy will suffer should President Leonid D. Kuchma’s handpicked successor take office despite widespread voter fraud and state interference. But last week’s events should not obscure the effect of Western assistance to Ukrainian democracy over the last decade.

Examples include contributing to the end of the temniki memorandums -- censorship decrees -- and the survival of one of Ukraine’s last independent newspapers; funding exit polls in the March 2002 parliamentary elections that helped ensure that the opposition could take the seats it actually won; and encouraging civic involvement in the policymaking process. The protests in Kiev’s streets last week attest to the vibrancy of Ukrainian civil society.

These victories of democracy do not attract the same attention as last Sunday’s election results. But democracy does not happen only on election day; it is based on broader change that includes a free press, civil society and rule of law.

Of course, Ukrainians deserve the bulk of the credit. No amount of Western assistance can substitute for people’s willingness to risk their lives for freedom. Yet, when the opposition has few resources and faces creeping government harassment, Western assistance can and has made the difference.

This support comes in many subtle forms that we must continue: sponsoring more exit polls to undermine the government’s attempts to falsify results; funding more nongovernmental organizations; and increasing attention from Western leaders to highlight the often life-threatening harassment of local journalists and civic activists.

Indeed, the international community’s response to this election will powerfully shape Ukraine’s trajectory for years. Western governments must continue to pressure the Ukrainian and Russian governments to accept only a full and fair accounting of the election results. This investment of diplomatic energy will create an environment for Western assistance to do more in the future.

But whatever occurs this week in Kiev, we must not forget what promoting democracy has achieved over the last decade. Americans are drawn to the idea that democracy is made with a dictator’s downfall or a free election four years later. But the way we imagine democracy as a series of Kodak moments must give way to the reality that democracy promotion is about slow and steady progress, with inevitable setbacks and struggles along the way.