Ukraine's election was a travesty, but crass meddling could deepen the crisis

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Democracy is an idea that is at once eminently simple and fiendishly complex. It is simple, because the principle of one person one vote is elementary and elections are not inherently hard to organise. But it has the potential to be infinitely complex because, as we have seen in Ukraine this week, in Georgia last year, and in the United States and Serbia four years ago, there are myriad ways in which the principle can be compromised or subverted.

Democracy is an idea that is at once eminently simple and fiendishly complex. It is simple, because the principle of one person one vote is elementary and elections are not inherently hard to organise. But it has the potential to be infinitely complex because, as we have seen in Ukraine this week, in Georgia last year, and in the United States and Serbia four years ago, there are myriad ways in which the principle can be compromised or subverted.

It has been glaringly apparent since Sunday that the conduct of Ukraine's presidential election left a great deal to be desired. Last night, the country's electoral commission declared the official result, passing over in silence why it had taken a full three days to calculate the final one per cent of the vote. A sudden hiatus in the count is never a good sign. It only reinforces suspicions - already well-founded in Ukraine - of crude manipulation by those in power. The commission surprised no one by awarding victory to the establishment candidate, the current prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, by two per cent.

The calm determination with which the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, and his supporters have so far pressed their cause - camping out in freezing temperatures and blizzards, marching peacefully to the presidential headquarters but no further, chanting and singing their protests - has been admirable. The conduct of interested parties further afield, alas, has been considerably less so.

If ever there was a reason to revive the old cold war term "fishing in troubled waters", the international response to the presidential election in Ukraine is it. From the earliest stages of the campaign, this was an election in which East and West, Russia and the United States, perceived that their interests were opposed - and they were hardly discreet in saying so. In the final weeks of electioneering, American advisers were in and out of the country; Colin Powell paid a visit. President Putin went twice, once on an official visit when he was received with full military honours.

Each regarded Ukraine's presidential election as a trial of strength. For the United States, it was a gauge of Ukraine's desire and ability to separate itself from old alliances and join the West. For Russia, it was a gauge of its own weakness. Would it lose yet another chunk from its contracting sphere of influence? And Ukraine is no mean chunk. With almost 50 million people, 20 per cent of whom are Russians, an area larger than France and long borders with Nato and Russia, it matters desperately what course the next president takes.

Russia foolishly jumped the gun, with President Putin congratulating Mr Yanukovych on the basis of questionable exit polls before the street protests had really begun. The Russians then backtracked, calling on both sides to observe the law and respect Ukraine's constitution. Mr Putin's rush to claim victory for "his" man was described as short on professionalism by one of his own advisers.

The White House was initially wiser, delegating condemnation of the election to surrogates - until yesterday. Within an hour of the Ukrainian electoral commission announcing the official result, the Secretary of State declared to camera that the US could not accept the result as legitimate and there would be "consequences" if it were allowed to stand.

Such a categorical intervention was highly unfortunate, for it conflicted with the first glimmerings of an eventual resolution. Mr Yanukovych said he would not accept his election unless he was satisfied that it was legitimate. Mr Yushchenko said he would accept a re-run of the election. The Russians mooted the idea of a possible constitutional amendment that would re-balance the power between president and prime minister. The Europeans offered mediation, and Lech Walesa, that old war-horse of constitutional tussles, was standing by to assist.

Now, more than at any time in the past week, Ukraine is precariously perched on the edge of civil war. The last thing it needs is for one or other meddling outsider to give it a push.

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