WASHINGTON -- Only a month after Ukraine's first indefinitive presidential elections and barely two weeks after runoff elections, the chaos we are seeing on the streets of Kiev is difficult to believe.
Yesterday, Ukraine, with its nearly 50 million people and its crucially geostrategic position between Europe and Russia, was considered one of the most implacably hard-line post-communist states, ruled by the iron-fisted Leonid Kuchma.
Today, the country's supreme court has ruled for new elections within weeks, something unheard of in the former Soviet bloc until now. It would be nigh impossible for the old-line politicians to rig another campaign with all the world now watching.
Yesterday, Viktor Yanukovich, the hand-picked candidate of Moscow and Kuchma, looked as though he might be able to pull off the fraud, supported by the pro-Russian east of the country and the rich caste of "robber barons" who took over the country's industrial wealth and enterprises after 1991.
Today, there is every indication that the more pro-Western and progressive candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, will win, with the support of the students, the intelligentsia, the Catholics and Orthodox of the western "breadbasket," the new small-businesspeople and many parliamentarians.
Yesterday, Ukraine was a strange, silent, sinister place, and Kiev a city of court intrigues so ugly they rivaled the Borgias'. When I was there before the first elections, Yushchenko had just returned from a month-long emergency trip to a Viennese clinic, where he was treated for poisoning -- not chemical, but bacteriological or biological. (One of Kuchma's top associates said, with the cruel cynicism that infused the place, "He should get a food-taster.")
Today, the capital city has been taken over by the most idealistic and hopeful spirits of the nation. A youth movement named Pora, or "It's time," which had been organizing in the bad days in small cells across the country, has set up field kitchens and medical aid stations, handed out sheets outlining their form of nonviolent civil disobedience, and given out so many orange accoutrements of dress that the crowd in Independence Square looks like one glowing display of the color that has been adopted by the movement.
Meanwhile, in the western and central parts of the country, Yushchenko's supporters were following an obviously well-thought-out plan, as they took control of municipal and regional councils and administrations. In the eastern areas, around coal-rich Donetz, Yanukovich supporters talked for several days of seceding from Ukraine, but such talk soon receded.
These last two weeks have been historically mind-blowing and spirit-raising. Ukraine in the fall of 2004 is the natural child of Lech Walesa jumping atop the Gdansk shipyard fence 24 years ago, the "velvet revolution" in Prague 15 years ago and the "rose revolution" in Georgia only last year.
It is the end result of careful planning for civil disobedience practices, of the work of NGOs from the European Union and the United States, of the rise of an impatient budding middle class in Ukraine itself, of the incapacity and cruelty of the Kuchma era, and of the now apparently failed intentions of President Putin.
Russian commentator Pavel Felgenhauer wrote this week in the Moscow Times: "Putin seems never to have intended to build alliances with the West ... Putin sought Western technology and investment in order to modernize the economy. He wanted Russia to be included in the G7 and the World Trade Organization. The Kremlin wanted the West to recognize the Commonwealth of Independent States as Russia's sphere of influence. In return, Putin was prepared to say the right things about democracy and related issues."
It was after the United States got bogged down in Iraq, he wrote, that the Kremlin's hands were freed "to conclude Russia's experiment with representative democracy. Steps were taken to establish control over Georgia and Ukraine."
Surely, President Putin is not going to let Ukraine -- and all it represents in wealth, in oil and gas pipelines and in strategic importance -- go easily. That is too heavy a price to pay, and Putin and Kuchma agreed last week there should be no new elections. But there is actually little he can do.
Ironically, what has so far defeated them both in Ukraine is not military might nor economic power, but transparency. The whole world now knows everything they have done, and it would be nearly impossible to keep their doings secret again.
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