Ivan Lozowy: We have proved that we are a nation

As I write these words, my wife has taken our daughter to demonstrate on Independence Square. I will join them later
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The Independent Online

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the West shrugged its shoulders at a newly independent Ukraine. Some believed its statehood would not last, most simply turned away and returned to their own affairs. Ukraine seemed to be mired in a post-communist limbo and for a time it seemed the old adage about an eternally patient Slavic soul applied to Ukrainians. One popular Ukrainian folk song even begins with: "Oh, where are you wandering, my destiny?"

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the West shrugged its shoulders at a newly independent Ukraine. Some believed its statehood would not last, most simply turned away and returned to their own affairs. Ukraine seemed to be mired in a post-communist limbo and for a time it seemed the old adage about an eternally patient Slavic soul applied to Ukrainians. One popular Ukrainian folk song even begins with: "Oh, where are you wandering, my destiny?"

Yet the warning signs were there. Student protests in the Ukrainian SSR forced the republic's Prime Minister from his post back in 1990. In 2000, the "Wave of Freedom" protest movement by Ukrainian journalists swept from the western town of Lviv towards the capital of Kiev. One of its organisers was a journalist, Heorhiy Gongadze, unknown outside Ukraine at the time. The Ukrainian government headed by Leonid Kuchma, which stands accused of murdering Gongadze, ignored the danger to its hold on power.

In a deliberately shameless campaign of intimidation and falsification, the government pushed through its candidate for president, Viktor Yanukovych, in a second round of voting held last Sunday.

On election day, hundreds of election commission members from the democratic opposition were summarily expelled. Close to three million votes were cast by mobile groups of absentee voters whom the government bussed across the country so they could vote in multiple districts. Blank protocols for filling in later were submitted by subservient election commissions, polling stations were broken into, guards entrusted with election documentation were shot or beaten to death.

Even then, Yanukovych was able to muster a lead of less than 3 percentage points over his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, while exit polls indicated that, in fact, Yushchenko had won the vote by a margin of at least 8 percentage points.

Neighbouring Russia's President Vladimir Putin travelled twice to Ukraine in as many weeks in order to lend public support to Yanukovych. But this tactic backfired. Occupied for hundreds of years by the tsarist empire, Ukrainians have always been wary of the Russians. Now cries of "The Russians are coming!" can be heard and rumours are circulating that special police units from Russia are in Ukraine. First, they were said to be changing into Ukrainian police uniforms in the Irpin region, close to Kiev, then flying into Borispol airport on a chartered plane.

Russia's concern for its "near abroad", as it prefers to call the former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, is understandable. Russia continues to base its Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine and its quest to regain world power status is integral to its psyche. Yet these concerns are as nothing to Ukrainians, because they are not our concerns.

Rejecting the advice of its northern neighbour, Russia, and given the scale and severity of election violations, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians turned out when Yushchenko called for a nationwide protest of the official election results. Earlier this week, some opposition organisers fretted that an advancing cold weather front would work in favour of the government. They worried in vain. The ranks of the demonstrators, both in Kiev and other cities in central and western Ukraine, have swelled as temperatures plunged.

Ukrainians feel an intense desire, akin to a need, to protest at unfairness. As I write these words, my wife has taken our elder daughter to demonstrate on Independence Square, if only for a few hours. If I hurry, I will be in time to join them.

What is it like to protest publicly in a semi-authoritarian state, knowing there are thousands of specially trained riot police waiting around the corner?

We know what is at stake today. Not just an election, but our very survival as citizens of a democratic country. Thus it means a lot to us that the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and some European leaders such as Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have refused to acknowledge the official results of the presidential elections.

We have other friends around the world. Yesterday, Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili wished us victory in the Ukrainian language. Today, Lech Walesa arrived from Poland in the role of mediator and gave a message of hope to the crowds massed on Independence Square.

I have never been prouder of my fellow countrymen than I am today. As Viktor Yushchenko said on the first day of the demonstrations, whatever tomorrow brings we have shown that we are a nation, proud and free. It would be as well for those who are living in the prosperous West to remember that once, they stood up for their yearning to be free as well. Because today, it is our turn. And we, also, will remember.

Ukraine's Supreme Court is authorised to rule on complaints of election violations. Yushchenko's campaign team has filed complaints asking that a number of results in districts supporting Yanukovych be annulled because of specific election violations.

The barrier is pretty high, however, since Yanukovych leads by more than 870,000 votes according to the official tally. This means that all the votes at a minimum of 500 polling stations out of Ukraine's total of 33,000 will have to be annulled for Yushchenko to take the lead.

In addition, the Supreme Court's ability to render a decisive verdict is in doubt. Ukrainians are perfectly aware that the government will stop at nothing, including putting illegitimate pressure on the judges of the Supreme Court, in order to obtain a result contrary to Yushchenko, thereby retaining power. Since the outgoing president Kuchma has openly backed Yanukovych, most people presume the two have come to some form of agreement about guarantees of safety for Kuchma.

Because the hundreds of thousands of people who have turned out to protest the massive election fraud firmly believe that their candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, won Ukraine's presidential elections, only the recognition of Yushchenko as Ukraine's next, legitimate president will satisfy their demands.

If the Supreme Court returns a verdict that does not satisfy the demonstrators' demands, the protests are unlikely to die down and the spectre of confrontation leading to violence looms larger. Yanukovych has not been sitting idly and has brought some supporters from Donetsk to Kiev, although their numbers are much smaller than those protesting on behalf of Yushchenko.

On 24 November, when the Central Electoral Commission was delivering its final decision on the vote count, a decision now frozen by the Supreme Court, only several hundred Yanukovych supporters from Donetsk were in evidence around the commission's building.

Although his supporters continuously affirm the opposite, Yanukovych is unlikely to draw on the support of thousands, much less hundreds of thousands of ordinary voters. His strength lies squarely among the police and the security services.

The author is President of the Institute of Statehood and Democracy in Kiev

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