By this Sunday, when Ukrainians go to the polls to elect a new president, they will have finally given three responses to a Russian campaign, conducted since Feb. 22, to sow fear in Ukraine and perhaps split it apart.
The responses can be summed up in three words: talks, walks, and votes.
First, the “talks.” The interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has traveled in the rebellious southeast regions to hold three sets of meetings about decentralizing power and ending corruption. His listening tour is in sharp contrast to armed rebels holding a few government buildings and cowing local people into silence.
These town hall-style talks have not only offered hope to Ukraine’s minority Russian-speakers in the east that their interests will be respected, they also counter a Moscow-led information war that tries to demonize the government in the capital, Kiev. The dialogue has already led the national parliament to take initial steps toward power sharing with the regions.
The “walks” response came only this week. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and the major employer in the contested Donetsk region, called on his 300,000 employees and others to walk the streets each day at noon in silent affirmation of Ukrainian unity and against the violence of the separatists. This daily display of people’s power will help assert that Ukrainians “are tired of living in fear and terror,” as Mr. Akhmetov put it.
The “votes” response will come when Ukraine holds the election May 25 for president and mayors. If successful, this electoral feat will bring a measure of stability to Ukraine and more legitimacy to the interim government.
It will also have a unifying effect that can help heal the political rupture that began last November when then-President Viktor Yanukovych sparked protests by rejecting a chance for Ukraine to join the European Union. The protests forced him to flee three months ago, initiating the Russian campaign of fear.
Despite the rebels’ attempt to block the voting, more than 90 percent of voting commissions are reportedly ready. International observers will be in place. The rebels don’t have enough people to block most of the balloting.
US Vice President Joe Biden says this “may be the most important election in the history of Ukraine.” It will be more than that. Together with the “talks” and the “walks,” the voting will be an example of how the “soft power” of civic values, such as listening, respect, and democracy, can have more force than guns and fear.
Despite the attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to manage Ukraine’s future by intimidation, the people reject that. Their revolution is no longer in the street. It is in the heart.