March 2, 2005

Analysis: The next Ukraine

By Gareth Harding
UPI Chief European Correspondent
Published March 2, 2005

BRUSSELS -- After the rose revolution in Georgia and the orange revolution in Ukraine, could the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Belarus be the next states to swap authoritarian rule for democracy?

European and American leaders are increasingly optimistic that the non-violent uprisings in Tbilisi and Kiev will create a snowball effect similar to that which rumbled through the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe in 1989.

"The democratic revolutions that swept this region over 15 years ago are now reaching Georgia and Ukraine," U.S. President George W. Bush told Slovaks in central Bratislava last week. "In 10 days, Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls. And inevitably, the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the country of democracies."

Viktor Yushchenko, the newly elected Ukrainian president who spearheaded protests against rigged elections in November, also believes freedom is on the march in eastern Europe. "The orange revolution set a very good example for many citizens because it showed them the way to protect their rights," he told United Press International last month. "This example is relevant to any country where rights are not respected."

The political map of Europe has been redrawn since the Berlin Wall came crashing down in November 1989, spreading democracy eastwards like an ink-blot. Eight former communist states -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia -- became members of the EU and NATO last year, and Bulgaria and Rumania are on course to join the union in 2007. Democracy has also begun to take root in Albania and the war-torn states of the former Yugoslavia, with Croatia and Macedonia likely to join the EU in the next three to five years.

But it was the revolutions in Georgia -- where Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted from power in 2003 -- and Ukraine, where massive street protests forced a re-run of fraudulent elections in November, that have provided the greatest inspiration to activists in the former Soviet bloc.

"No one can say now that democracy is not possible near Russia or that post-Soviet countries can't become properly functioning democracies," says Pavol Demes, who has advised opposition groups in Ukraine and Serbia and now heads the German Marshall Fund's Bratislava office. "There are now five concrete examples of Soviet republics freeing themselves from communism and then authoritarianism (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine) that the people of Belarus and Moldova can dream about, learn lessons from and act on."

Voters in Moldova, a desperately poor country of 4.2 million people nestled between Romania and Ukraine, get their chance to choose between Western-style liberal democracy and Russian-style authoritarianism Sunday. Communist President Vladimir Voronin, who has ruled the country since 2001 and traditionally been close to the Kremlin, now favors tighter links with Europe. But his conversion to the EU cause may have come too late for impatient voters fed up with endemic corruption and the continent's lowest living standards. "There is a communist dictatorship in our country and, consequently, there are conditions for a revolution," said Yuri Rosca, leader of the Christian Democratic People's Party. Emulating Yushchenko's tactics in Ukraine, the opposition has swathed itself in orange and booked the central square of the capital, Chisinau, for a fortnight in anticipation of street protests.

The situation in Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship, is less promising for freedom fighters. A former Soviet republic of 10 million people that shares borders with three EU states, Belarus has been ruled with an iron fist by Communist President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. Blatant vote-rigging in November elections -- opposition parties failed to win a single seat in parliament -- was slammed by international observers and earned Belarus the dubious honor of being the only European country included on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's "outposts of tyranny" list in January.

But many campaigners and analysts are confident that change will come to the communist state sooner rather than later. "If it can happen in Georgia and Ukraine, then it can happen in Belarus," says Irina Krasovskaya, president of We Remember Foundation. Oxford professor and east European expert Timothy Garton Ash told UPI: "It would be very foolish of us to imagine that change won't come in countries like Moldova, Belarus and perhaps Armenia in the next three to five years."

Others, however, are less optimistic. Belarus has high growth rates, low unemployment, a strong welfare state and little social unrest. Despite Western criticism, Lukashenko has higher approval ratings than many democratically elected leaders -- even independent observers credited him with almost half the vote in last year's elections.

"The circumstances in Belarus and Moldova are very different from the other countries that have become democracies," says Demes. "Europe and America are only now discovering these two states."

The EU has imposed mild sanctions on Belarus but has done little to actively support regime change in the country. The U.S. administration, on the other hand, adopted the Belarus Democracy Act last year, which not only slaps sanctions on the communist government, but also supports non-governmental organizations fighting for freedom, democracy and an independent media.

"We stand by the people trying to bring forward democratic reform, but you cannot impose it from the outside," said one senior U.S. official. "What we can do is help with media reform and work with political parties, so that instead of dictators in power you show people how to build up parties with a grass-roots base."

Last week, Bush made true on his inauguration speech pledge to support those struggling against tyranny when he met with 21 "champions of freedom" from central and eastern Europe in Bratislava. "He told us he deeply cares about our cause and will do his best to help in the coming years," said Demes, one of the 21 freedom fighters chosen to meet the president. "All of us came away from the meeting feeling very encouraged."