Saying No to Vladimir Putin

Editorial (N Y Times)
Published: December 4, 2004

Ukraine's Supreme Court made a courageous decision yesterday in calling for a second runoff election by Dec. 26. Now all parties should let Ukrainians make their choice fairly. That is especially incumbent on President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who, apparently forgetting that he's no longer in the K.G.B., has been trying to ram last month's fraudulent election results down the country's throat. The two-week dispute has raised tensions to a boiling point in the divided country, and any new provocation could lead to violence and irrevocable division.

The Ukrainian government said it would abide by the decision of the 18-member court. But President Leonid Kuchma had hoped that the court would order entirely new elections, enabling him to dump his badly tainted candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, and force the opposition to run someone other than its popular leader, Viktor Yushchenko. The court was right to heed the advice of European mediators and schedule a straight rerun, and quickly, to keep passions from getting out of control.

One of the most heartening aspects of the court's decision was that a Ukrainian institution was deciding the future of Ukraine. That was especially notable after a crude attempt by Mr. Putin a day earlier to lean on the court by summoning Mr. Kuchma to a quick but extensively publicized meeting at a Moscow airport. Mr. Putin might have thought that these demeaning theatrics would intimidate or impress the judges. In the end it made his political failure only more obvious.

Ukraine and Russia share much history: both spring from the same Kievan Rus state, and eastern and southern Ukraine residents identify closely with Russia in language and religion. And it would be wrong to romanticize the widespread protests in the streets of Kiev, which carry a dollop of an unsavory form of nationalism. But these are issues for Ukrainians to work out themselves.

But why would Mr. Putin exacerbate a situation in which Russia really did not have much to lose? Mr. Yushchenko, after all, had already served as prime minister under Mr. Kuchma, and knows he must maintain close relations with Russia, the main source of Ukraine's energy.

Mr. Putin could have scored points by acting as a disinterested mediator. But, because the histories of Russia and Ukraine are so intertwined, Russia could emerge as the biggest political loser if Ukraine were to descend into violence or break up.

Mr. Putin has already suffered considerable damage to his standing in the West through his unnecessary public interference in Ukraine's political process. Now that the court has ruled, he would do well to accept its judgment and to abandon the foolish notion that someone is trying to steal "his" Ukraine.

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