Ukraine's presidential polls backfire

Updated: 2014-05-26 03:35

By MARTIN SIEFF (China Daily)

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The dramatic upsurge in violence in eastern Ukraine in the week before the new presidential elections should come as no shock to anyone. This was a predictable development which seems has taken only the United States and the European Union by surprise.

From Egypt to Afghanistan, the playbook of recent US administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, has been equally rigid, conformist and predictable. The US prescribes that democratic national elections be held as soon as possible with the somewhat hypocritical proviso that the candidate Washington believes meets its own “impeccable standards” should win. He or she will then accept the appropriate terms of the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission, regardless of how many millions more people lose their jobs as a consequence. The glorious goal of nation building (or rebuilding) can then be launched anew.

Except, of course, the playbook never works out. The infinite diversity of societies, cultures and political structures and traditions in a world of more than 200 states and 7 billion-plus human beings makes that inevitable.

The rush to hold the new presidential election in Ukraine is urgent for the European Commission in Brussels and the Barack Obama administration in Washington. However, it was obvious from the word “go” that a significant majority in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine would never accept a diktat from the new rulers in Kiev. The most that the coup leaders and their Western allies could and should have aimed for was to accept an increasingly decentralized and federalized structure for Ukraine as a whole.

This would have given the people of eastern Ukraine the reassurance they urgently needed. It would also have offered an olive branch to Russia that its security interests would be recognized in the recently independent nation that had been part of the historic Russian and Soviet states for almost all of the 337 years from 1654 to 1991.

But no, the Maidan Nezalezhnosti-dominated regime in Kiev and its unquestioning poodles in Washington and Brussels knew only one mantra — presidential election now, presidential election as fast as possible to rush through the urgently needed ex post facto, after the event, retroactive legitimization for the February coup.

Unfortunately, this rush to hold the presidential election is pouring petroleum on a blazing fire. It is provoking violence on a far wider and more serious scale.

If the US and the EU were really as passionate about promoting democracy and constitutional government as they claim to be, they would have recognized the legitimacy of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's government, which was elected for a set term by a globally recognized free and fair election and with a clear majority.

Instead, the democratic process that has at least kept Ukraine peaceful and secure since independence 22 and half years ago was heedlessly destroyed in the February coup after Yanukovych rejected the harsh terms of the economic diktat that EC negotiators had laid down for Ukraine to be associated with the EU.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has now overseen over two votes that produced clear majorities for de facto independence in two eastern regions of Ukraine. However, he appears so far to have no intention of incorporating those two new structures directly into Russia, as he did with Crimea. This move may be seen as a signal of restraint in the face of the latest US sanctions, especially as Putin has sent clear messages to Washington and NATO both that he is willing to revive dialogue and defuse tensions as long as Russia's national security interests are recognized in a region that has always been part of its heartland.

The rush to hold fresh presidential polls on terms dictated by the Kiev regime was never going to restore the bonds of mutual tolerance, compromise and trust that were necessary to hold Ukraine together. National elections on these rushed terms never had a prayer of restoring Ukraine back to the status quo of uneasy balance between the east and west of the country that had prevailed since independence.

The new presidential election was always about hypocrisy, about rushing to establish a new legitimacy, a new political reality that the democratic world could be rounded up to support.

However, Putin foiled that game plan by holding referendums on his own terms in Crimea and the two eastern Ukrainian regions first. Now, the forces in eastern Ukraine that reject the February coup in Kiev are responding with escalating violence of their own at the attempt to force Kiev's legitimacy down their throats. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the hollowness and hypocrisy of the current Ukrainian national election process.

The author is a political columnist for the Post-Examiner chain of online newspapers in the United States and a senior fellow at the American University in Moscow.