Back in 2004, when thousands of young people gathered in the central square of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, Americans cheered, for it looked as if democracy had spring full-blown upon the departure of long-time strongman Leonid Kuchma.
From this distance it seemed that Ukrainians were speaking with one voice, but they weren’t. As in any democracy there are many voices to be heard and since then, many have been heard, often in disagreement with one another. Fewer than two dozen years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent governments among its former components.
The United States, as a mature democracy, understands that formulating a foreign policy toward a young democracy, such as Ukraine’s, means listening to many voices. No one voice, no matter how strong, can reflect all points of view. The development of Ukrainian democracy is an ongoing process. The country has been and still is in the process of healing painful issues that divided peoples and places over a very long time. Ukraine and its leaders need the support of other democratic nations, especially ours, as it works its way through the process.
Historically, Ukraine has a very long relationship with Russia. Indeed, Russia had its beginnings as Kievan Rus, in what is now Kiev, in the 9th century. The east and south of Ukraine is largely Russian-speaking today. The country’s east and northeast border on Russia. The northwest borders on Belarus. The west is largely Ukrainian-speaking and borders on Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary on the west and Romania and Moldova on the southwest.
Today, Ukraine is an important strategic partner of the United States. It sent troops to Afghanistan and had one of the largest contingents in Iraq. Because of its geographical position, Ukraine is, in effect, a potential gateway between the U.S. and Russia. At the moment, however, the question is open: for whom will the gateway open?
For Ukraine to move forward with its democracy, the time has come for opposing forces on important issues to find a way to compromise over seemingly intractable issues. Take the case of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She is in prison, convicted in 2011 for “abuse of power” over a natural gas transaction she had negotiated with Russia. In addition, she has also been charged with implication in the murder of a Ukrainian parliamentarian in 1996.
Her supporters claim this is all a political vendetta. Prosecutors say that is not so; that there is plenty of evidence to support the charges against her. The unwillingness of either side to budge has very divisive implications for the society.
U.S. Senators of both parties recently showed that compromise, worked out quietly, can open up a seemingly intractable problem. They worked to solve the long-standing and divisive issue of illegal immigration of millions of people into the country. Six months ago, no one thought this possible.
Ukrainians, given their history of suffering, as a people do not want human hatred in the form of any “ism,” whether it be fascism, nationalism, chauvinism or religious intolerance. While politicians come and go, the nation remains and its people want the values of democracy to prevail. Thus, in cases such as the Tymoshenko one, they can look to the U.S. for examples on how to worked toward compromise.
Mr. Hannaford is a board member of The Committee on the Present Danger.