Ukraine's Democracy Is Increasingly Rare Light in Ex-Soviet Bloc

Article excerpt

Some grumbled, but most Ukrainians went willingly to the polls Sunday to take part in a civic exercise that's become increasingly rare in most parts of the former Soviet Union - free, open, and truly competitive elections.

Many voters leaving Kiev polling stations expressed frustration with the political stalemate between the Moscow-friendly "Blue" party of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and the pro-Western "Orange" parties led by President Viktor Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which persists despite four elections in the past three years.

But some insisted they'd rather keep casting ballots than see order imposed upon them from above. "It's our politicians we're disillusioned with, not democracy," said Lyudmilla Smirnova, a pensioner.

Despite many nagging problems, Ukraine's fledgling democracy remains a splash of brightness in a region where the lights are slowly fading out. With the exception of the three ex-Soviet Baltic states, which became full members of the European Union in 2004, most republics of the former USSR have drifted backward in recent years, abandoning experimental democracies for varying hues of authoritarianism.

"Ukraine is more democratic than most other parts of the former Soviet Union," says Vitaly Kulik, director of the independent Civil Society Studies Center in Kiev. "It's far more open, and our civil society develops in an unfettered way. Ukraine's sorrow is that democracy has turned into a source of permanent political crisis."

Increasing authoritarianism in other ex-Soviet states

Russia, the giant neighbor that still exercises great influence over Ukraine, has turned to a system of "managed democracy" under the intensely popular President Vladimir Putin, which has produced prosperity and order but severely circumscribed civil liberties and democratic choices.

"Russia is basically an authoritarian state now, with highly centralized power and most decisionmaking concentrated in the hands of one man," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "If we define democracy as public participation, political competition, and government accountability, then Russia no longer qualifies as a democracy."

Next door, Belarus is run as a virtual fiefdom of President Alexander Lukashenko, who was overwhelmingly elected to a third term last year in what international observers judged to be rigged polls. …