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Armitage: WatchingUkraine Elections with Concern

Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary
Op-ed published in the Financial Times
Washington, DC
October 29, 2004

In the heat of this US presidential campaign season, Americans can take some comfort in knowing they are not alone. Countries around the world are experiencing an unusually eventful political climate this year. The significance for the US of these global contests lies less in the outcome of any single election than in the fact that a free and fair vote is taking place in so many countries today.

In Afghanistan, for example, the successful election earlier this month was clearly a necessary precursor to rebuilding and stabilising the country. The opposite is true of Belarus, where elections on October 17 were sullied by fraud, intimidation and administrative abuse, an unmistakable signal that an already troubled country will remain mired in a repressive political system and will stay outside the Euro-Atlantic community.

The next bellwether for democracy will be seen on Sunday in Ukraine, right next door to Belarus, and there are signs of trouble. As the US has made clear many times, we have an overriding interest in a democratic Ukraine.

Ukraine is a country of nearly 50m people with great potential as a regional leader and an example for the re-emerging states of the former Soviet Union and the broader region. Indeed, this is a nation that has already made valuable contributions to global security, including sending troops to Iraq.

The US views Ukraine as a friend and an increasingly valuable economic and strategic partner, and the US government certainly support Ukraine's sovereignty and future with the Euro-Atlantic community of free nations. Indeed, we are committed to working with our partners and allies to help Ukraine attain its declared goal of joining institutions such as Nato, the European Union and the World Trade Organisation.

However, that vision ultimately depends on a Ukraine that is open and democratic. Membership of those institutions - and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to which Ukraine already belongs - confers responsibilities and obligations to abide by democratic and human rights norms and standards, not least of which is conducting a free and fair election and accompanying campaign.

Unfortunately, as Ukrainians prepare to go to the polls to choose their third president since attaining independence in 1991, the election campaign has already fallen far short of the standards the international community expects - and the Ukrainian people deserve.

But it is not too late. Ukrainian authorities can put an end to the violations that have plagued the campaign, such as disruption of opposition rallies, stifling of independent media and misuse of administrative resources - all of which have created an uneven playing field. Past abuses and their negative impact cannot be ignored, but ending them immediately would help return Ukraine to international election standards.

Of course, fair and transparent conduct of elections and accurate tabulation of the results will also help determine the democratic credentials of the next Ukrainian president.

To be sure, the US does not have a vote in this election; it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide who should lead them into the future. And when they do, we will work with whoever they elect - as long as the victor is chosen through a free and honest process. Indeed, we stand with the people of Ukraine.

I visited Kiev earlier this year to underscore the commitment of my government and the American people to a vibrant, democratic Ukraine. I carried with me a message from President George W. Bush, and it is a message that has been echoed by colleagues both inside and outside the US government: a free and fair election will deepen Ukraine's relationship with Europe and its institutions. A bad election, on the other hand, will force us to re-examine our relationship, especially with individuals who engage in election fraud and manipulation.

We look to the current government of Ukraine to ensure that Ukrainians truly have the opportunity to choose their next leader. Leonid Kuchma, the president, has a chance to capture for his country the full promise of free elections. He can demonstrate to Ukraine's people, to its neighbours and to the world how to serve out his term and transfer power with dignity, through a peaceful, proper electoral process. We hope the Ukrainian government takes this advice from a friend who wishes the best for Ukraine and its people.

[End]


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