Who's influencing Ukraine's vote?

As thousands of election monitors arrive for Sunday's vote, critics complain of Western interference.

The international observers began arriving here by the planeload Wednesday to oversee Sunday's presidential revote. By the weekend, the number of poll watchers is expected to swell to 12,000, the largest contingent of international observers ever to monitor an election.

The weight of Western interest - and funding - directed at Ukraine's troubled democratic process over recent months has raised questions about the motives behind foreign assistance and its impact on this post-Soviet state.

US Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas has alleged that some $60 million in US funding went overwhelmingly to finance activities that led to the "Orange Revolution," two weeks of protest that followed the disputed victory by Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovich over opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

But Americans who have been involved in this process say that ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US has promoted sound democratic practices - including fair elections - in countries throughout the area of former Soviet influence. The transformation in Ukraine is in part a result of efforts like those.

"What the US has been doing in Ukraine is the same thing we did in Romania and in other East European countries, we have been helping develop and strengthen organizations that support establishing the rule of law, we have worked on strengthening the election process," says Jim Rosapepe, a former US ambassador to Romania with business ties to Eastern Europe.

Mr. Rosapepe and others see a difference between what the US has done, and what they say Russian leader Vladimir Putin has tried to do.

"What we haven't done is go and endorse candidates," he says, referring to Mr. Putin's trips to Ukraine to all but openly campaign for Mr. Yanukovich.

As for whether the US-funded efforts have overreached, especially in election observation during this heated period, Rosapepe says, "We shouldn't be ashamed of it. We should really be proud of what we've helped bring about. I'd say we've helped appropriately raise the hopes of Ukrainians."

But Russia alleges that the US is using "democracy building" as a stealthy means of toppling Moscow-friendly regimes, as in Serbia and Georgia, and replacing them with pro-Western ones.

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected Russian academic who acted as an advisor to Yanukovich's campaign, claims that alleged US funding for the student group Pora, which spearheaded the Orange Revolution, was part of a cynical powerplay. "This is not democratic," he says. "Such people love democracy less than they dislike Russia."

For most experts, the US role in Ukraine, and to a greater degree that of the European Union, have been important but will not amount to tipping the election in favor of Yushchenko.

"As helpful as we've been, none of it would have mattered if it weren't for the rebellion, the demands for clean elections, that filled the streets," says Simon Serfaty, a US-Europe expert at the center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

It should surprise no one, Mr. Serfaty says, that some in Ukraine are complaining now about the role of external influence. "What they are complaining about is that, as a result of the legitimacy of the internal protests being backed by external pressures, they were not allowed to cheat," he says. "Of course they are bitter about it."

The geopolitical row between Moscow and Washington is dismissed by many Ukrainian nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers. "Of course democracy assistance changes the Soviet system; that's what we're trying to do," says Vera Nanivska, director of the International Center for Policy Studies.

Ukraine's political upheaval has certainly captured imaginations around the world. Most of the foreign observers seeking accreditation with the Central Election Commission are people with no prior experience in election monitoring, and only the sparsest of training.

Canada, where citizens of Ukrainian descent make up a huge lobby, is sending 500 official observers, or five times more than the usual umbrella group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, can accept from one country. The Ukrainian Canadian Congress is sponsoring 500 more.

While the US is fielding just the OSCE quota of 100 official monitors, the unofficial Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, says it will be helping up to 2,000 people obtain accreditation.

"It's like witnessing the birth of a nation," says Ron Chyczij, coordinator of the unofficial Ukrainian-Canadian delegation, on why so many are coming. He says monitors have all been instructed to observe strict neutrality, and report any violations they find. But he adds a view that would likely make them see red in the Kremlin: "I definitely think people would like to see a greater Western influence in Ukraine because it's a way of getting away from the Russian influence that's been here for so long."

Russian critics complain that Western observers were sent disproportionately to the east Ukraine in the second round, where they witnessed electoral violations by Yanukovich's people, but never saw similar fraud taking place in the pro-Yushchenko west of the country. A Canadian diplomat, who asked not to be named, admitted that while Canadian observers were being sent to 17 of Ukraine's 25 regions, they would be "double dosing" the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where a greater danger of fraud was anticipated.

Peter Novotny, codirector of the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations, which is USAID-funded, says his organization will distribute its 1,000 monitors strictly according to the number of polling stations in each area. But, he says, "the fraud in the first rounds was more concentrated in the east. We didn't find such gross violations in the western regions."

Some NGO activists say there is simply no way to satisfy the critics, or answer the Kremlin's complaints.

"Putin finds it outrageous that anyone would put their foot into his yard, but we are protesting violations of our civil rights," says Nanivska. "Now that Ukraine has de-Sovietized in a cathartic way, we find ourselves talking different languages [with the Russians]. They say freedom and mean something abstract. When we say freedom now, we mean 'it's my freedom; I won it.' "

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