Ukraine visit highlights hope for democracy

Spreading liberty tops Bush's agenda, but the effort comes with risks as well as rewards.

Democracy's global march will take the Washington spotlight this week as Viktor Yushchenko - who rode a wave of people power and braved a near-fatal poisoning to become Ukraine's president in January - makes calls on the White House and the US Congress.

Mr. Yushchenko, who visits President Bush Monday and speaks to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, will discuss matters ranging from economic ties to prospects for NATO membership.

But symbolically he comes as a poster boy for democracy's spread to new corners of the globe, as the Bush administration settles on democratization - especially of the Arab and Muslim worlds - as its principal foreign-policy goal.

Indeed, the parade of new democrats, including leaders who came to power in high-profile elections, will probably maintain a brisk pace. Palestine's Mahmoud Abbas will be greeted at the White House later this spring.

Yet for all the basking in democratic progress, the Yushchenko visit also provides a setting for gauging the US role in democracy promotion. In particular, questions are being asked from Latin America to Eastern Europe and beyond about whether the US and American prodemocracy groups are promoting universal values - or siding with favored leaders and furthering national interests.

At the same time, questions are likely to intensify over intervention in nations' internal affairs at a time when much of the "low fruit" - the easier cases for democratization - is already picked. This will be especially true as pressures for change mount in countries that may not have a robust civil society to cushion the turmoil that accompanies political change. One example is Zimbabwe, where the regime of Robert Mugabe last week tightened its grip in what are widely viewed as fraudulent parliamentary elections.

"We're at a crucial moment that calls for being especially careful about supporting certain universal values and not political tendencies," says Thomas Carothers, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. After a post-cold-war decade of democratic advancement, he adds, "barriers may be rising again as regimes recognize how involvement from outside [of prodemocracy forces] may hurt them."

President Yushchenko's own political opponents in the authoritarian regime he battled portrayed his struggle and ultimate victory as an American- and Western-engineered power play. The thousands of Ukrainians who kept a frigid vigil over the elections, and the judiciary that stood firm against the pressures of the ruling powers, belied such claims.

But the more recent case of Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic where protests over fraudulent parliamentary elections led to the president's flight to Russian refuge last month, offers a different picture.

There, more than a decade of US funding for prodemocracy groups and civil-society development in a particularly poor country has been judged as critical to the departure of President Askar Akayev and the rise of new Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The new leader had visited America on a US government grant to study democracy development. The political opposition was nourished by US and European funding. And the population had expanding access to newspapers and electronic media funded by Western sources.

Some experts see a fine line between encouraging democratic reforms and provoking instability, and argue that the US must take care not to appear to be crossing over to the latter - particularly for the chilling effect it could have on long-term reform efforts.

"We want reform, but we don't want governments to think we are funding their overthrow," says Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest, a Washington-based foreign policy review. Leaders in other Central Asian countries no doubt took note of events in Kyrgyzstan and could become more skeptical of Western prodemocracy influences, experts say.

Even such neutral endeavors as civil-society development and judiciary strengthening can slip into activities with the appearance of supporting particular politicians rather than broad principles.

Jeswald Salacuse, an expert in international dispute settlement, says a lot of good work was accomplished by US efforts in good governance, but that the nonpartisan nature of that work got trickier. "You began having many more groups struggling to be elected, challenging the dominant powers, and the work became more intertwined with the battle for power," says Mr. Salacuse, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

In Kyrgyzstan, for example, the US-based Freedom House ended up offering use of a printing press to opposition publications after the government denied them access to government-owned presses. "We don't as a matter of policy work with any political party," says Arch Puddington, director of research with Freedom House in New York.

In Ukraine, he says, Freedom House worked for more than a decade on developing the rule of law, media expansion, and building civil society, "but our intent was not to build towards elections," he says. Still, during the election, "the results of these efforts could be seen from the courts to the demonstrations."

Venezuela is a case where US involvement with prodemocracy groups was quickly characterized by the government as interference and aimed at toppling the government - especially after the US appeared supportive of an abortive 2002 coup against President Hugo Chavez.

The Venezuelan government and its supporters have been especially critical of the independent but congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It has spent about $1 million annually supporting prodemocracy groups in Venezuela. That support increased when anti-Chavez factions forced a referendum on his presidency. But NED officials maintain the increased support was to encourage public education on the referendum process.

Latin America is a particularly sensitive venue for US-sponsored democratization efforts because of a history of American intervention, experts say.

"Venezuela plays out against a backdrop of the old feeling of Yankee imperialism," says Mr. Salacuse. "Right away, part of the population will think any work is being done on behalf of the opposition, especially in a case where the president has a bad relationship with the US, as in Venezuela," he says. "I don't think that argument holds water, but you do have to be careful."

But Venezuela is also a case where the presence of huge oil fields (which are crucial to US supplies) provides the regime with the resources to stand up both to the US and to opposition forces.

Carnegie's Mr. Carothers says a similar resilience is at play in the former Soviet republics, with the more economically stable countries resisting what he calls the "contagious effect" of the revolutions in Georgia or Ukraine. "Some regimes are stronger than others, and it's the weak ones that are dropping now."

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