We have every right to promote democracy, but not to impose it

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The sight of the continuing crowds demonstrating in Kiev despite the cold and snow is a profoundly moving one. Against all the predictions that weather and force would lead to dwindling support for the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, the numbers have, in fact, swelled day by day. So has the open support from outside the country, from the blunt statement of the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, that he would not accept the result of the rigged election, to the EU's condemnation of the tactics used by Viktor Yanukovych, and the decision to send the EU foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana, to Kiev yesterday.

The sight of the continuing crowds demonstrating in Kiev despite the cold and snow is a profoundly moving one. Against all the predictions that weather and force would lead to dwindling support for the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, the numbers have, in fact, swelled day by day. So has the open support from outside the country, from the blunt statement of the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, that he would not accept the result of the rigged election, to the EU's condemnation of the tactics used by Viktor Yanukovych, and the decision to send the EU foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana, to Kiev yesterday. Just as in Leipzig, Prague, Moscow, Belgrade and, most recently, Tbilisi in Georgia, the ordinary citizens have shown that they care about freedom and are prepared to take to the streets to defend it. And just as in those capitals, the ordinary soldiers, police and security officials who have traditionally suppressed revolts have this time chosen to step back from open confrontation, and even to join the protesters.

That does not mean that Ukraine will necessarily find an easy, or necessarily a peaceful, path out of this current crisis. It would be wrong for those outside to see such political changes solely through their own perspective, to view the battle going on in Kiev as a struggle between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces, between progress and regress, freedom and oppression. There are elements of all that, and more. But it is as well to remember that Ukraine is a particular country, with its own past and its own ethnic balances. The desire for a victory for majority opinion in Ukraine has to be balanced with a concern that it should not lead to the oppression of the one third of the population who are Russian-speaking.

The job of the outside world now is to help not to meddle, and not to make political capital out of the crisis. It is certainly right to declare, after the reports by observers from the OCSE and the European Union, that the election was flawed. It is absolutely correct, and necessary, to keep repeating our view that the Ukrainians have a right to self-determination and that the best route to this is through free and fair elections. But in respect of the negotiations and manoeuvrings over the coming week, or weeks, the job of the outside world should essentially be in a supportive, rather than a leadership, role.

The same could be said of the elections due to take place in Iraq and Palestine, and the pressure now being applied for democratic change in Burma, Belarus, Iran and all the other countries where repressive regimes are being challenged.

Democracy has become a clarion call for the neo-conservatives in Washington and for Tony Blair over here. Rightly so. But it is not an instrument of our power. It is something that we believe is in the best interests of people everywhere, and which has to be sought, negotiated and, if necessary, fought for by those people themselves. Freedom at the end of a foreign gun is not a happy combination, as Britain and the United States are learning. We are not ultimately the champions of democracy so much as its servant.

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