Viktor vs. Viktor, Live From Independence Square

If television relishes anything more than a high-speed car chase, it’s a churning mass of humanity. The networks spent 10 days replaying footage of Ron Artest’s two-fisted foray into the Detroit Pistons’ drunken fan base. Such a brawl made great TV, but about the 10th time you saw it, the whole episode started to seem like a fiendish parody of the invasion of Iraq: Attack the wrong guy and you unleash big, big trouble.

The NBA donnybrook was finally knocked off our screen by a far bigger crowd, this one nonviolent (so far, anyway). Each morning for nearly two weeks, throngs of Ukrainians have braved fog and snow in Kiev’s Independence Square demanding new elections after it was officially announced that the pro-Russia ruling party’s handpicked candidate, Viktor F. Yanukovich, had gotten more votes in the recent presidential election than his pro-West rival, Viktor A. Yushchenko.

"You don’t have millions of people demonstrating across a country in snowstorms unless something serious is going on," commented Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., Sir David Manning, gently burnishing the national knack for understatement. Few things could be more transformative for the 48 million Ukrainians than this showdown in a country almost evenly split between stasis and reform, East and West. That’s why there have been demos and counterdemos, parliamentary resolutions disputing the results, plausible threats of secession by two states, and simmering threats of violence from the regime’s millions of supporters, especially its miners, who aren’t unwilling to introduce Kiev’s cosmopolitans to the talking end of a pick.

Although the networks never tired of broadcasting images from Independence Square — another chance to whip out those fabulous videophones! — TV did a miserable job of explaining exactly why the protests were happening. There were constant references to electoral "irregularities," but you rarely heard what that meant. In fact, beyond astonishing allegations that the government had gone character assassination one better and actually poisoned its rival Yushchenko, many of these irregularities are regular features of repressive regimes. International observers found evidence of blatant electoral fraud. Not only did pro-government supporters vote early and often, but the results were so egregiously mistabulated that one was reminded of the line in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers: "It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting."

Echoing the Europeans, George W. Bush and Colin Powell hastened to reject the legitimacy of the election results (while trying to placate Vladimir Putin behind the scenes). Although the public stance was the correct one, it’s unnerving to hear the administration talk righteously about honest voting when millions of Americans now think our own polling process is, well, irregular. It makes you think. How would Dubya have reacted if those who questioned the validity of his re-election had taken to the streets — if only to demand traceable paper ballots?

Over the last 15 years, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing crowds surge through Eastern European squares — Berlin 1989, Belgrade 2000, Tbilisi 2003. But such images never lose their power. It still thrills me to see those passionate democrats on the Kiev streets, many clad in the brazen orange of the Yushchenko campaign, demanding the right to choose their own leaders. Movingly, the Ukrainian protests were spearheaded by the youth movement Pora — the term means "high time" — whose members are burning for their country to become closer to Europe. I don’t blame them. You don’t have to harbor any illusions about the West to know they will be better off in its penumbra than in the mortal embrace of Commissar Putin’s Russia, which needs a weak Ukraine to keep alive its imperial fantasies.

Although one would never know it from the American media, the Ukrainian opposition didn’t sprout spontaneously. As the November 26 issue of Britain’s Guardian pointed out (beneath the dementedly anti-American headline: "U.S. Campaign Behind the Turmoil in Kiev"), the struggle for democracy in the Ukraine is just the latest manifestation of what the article calls "an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that ... has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavory regimes." As in the recent Serbian, Georgian and Belarusian elections, the Ukrainian opposition has enjoyed backing from the U.S. State Department, branches of the Republican and Democratic parties, and funding organizations like George Soros’ Open Society. Using both moola ($14 million) and imported know-how, these American groups have taught anti-government forces how to run a proper campaign by rallying behind a single, pragmatically selected candidate, employing high-concept advertising and verifying the accuracy of official results with exit polls (which, apparently, are far more trustworthy in Donetsk than in Cleveland).

Now, it’s hard not to have some qualms about the United States using its clout to influence the outcome of foreign elections — even when, as in the Ukraine, it’s on the side of the angels. Think how Bill O’Reilly would holler if Eastern European marketing gurus were helping sell the Democrats. (Sadly, Kerry’s campaign commercials often appeared to have been made in Kiev.) Still, in the era of pre-emptive war, teaching pro-democracy forces the dark arts of electioneering seems positively benign. The recent electoral successes must delight old foreign-service hands who nostalgically recall the Cold War heyday when the U.S. government had a clear idea of its Communist enemy.

If only matters were half so simple in the Middle East, where the vast majority practices a religion the West doesn’t understand, lives under tyrannical governments (often sanctioned by the U.S.) and, unlike the old Communist bloc, boasts no real movement for democracy — where there is a political opposition, it’s largely fundamentalist. The closest thing to a Middle Eastern Ukraine is Iran, most of whose citizens oppose the rule of the mullahs, but rather than fostering their desire for democracy, we made them part of the axis of evil.

As one who takes the threat of Islamic fascism seriously, I’m horrified at how little energy the Bush administration has put into fighting that threat with something more enduring than mere weapons. In the weeks after September 11, you heard about the need for the U.S. to win the war of ideas against Osama’s medievalist terrorism by launching a decadeslong ideological struggle. But three years after 9/11, the U.S. still doesn’t have enough Arabic speakers to work the Green Zone in Baghdad, let alone a strategy for advancing its ideas in the Middle East. Indeed, a Pentagon advisory group, the Defense Science Board, just issued a crushing report, which notes that the U.S. government has no credibility in the Muslim world, partly because it has portrayed Islamic extremism in a way that offends most Muslims, but mainly because it has no way of reaching that audience: "The United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam."

Rather than build such a channel — the better to win hearts and minds — the administration has put its faith in military intervention. Nearly 12 months after capturing Saddam, we have just destroyed Fallujah in order to save it (to employ the obligatory historical irony), and this was a city that, as former terrorism czar Richard Clarke notes, never posed any threat to the U.S. Now, we’re in the process of trying to ram through a January election that will allow an "honorable" withdrawal. For the sake of the Iraqi people, one must hope it proves successful, although what success means at this point may be little more than averting catastrophe.

Of course, partisan hacks like William Safire admiringly quote Bush’s Wilsonian rhetoric about the need to extend democracy. While I endorse the principle, it is slightly nauseating to hear that "freedom is on the march" from a president who only began using liberty as a fallback position — after the occupation of Iraq went sour. In his State of the Union speech right before the invasion, Bush never uttered the word democracy in connection with that ill-starred country. One presumes he also wouldn’t mention it in connection with Venezuela, where newly released documents reveal that the CIA knew in advance about the April 2002 coup attempt against the democratically elected (if wretched) Hugo Chavez but did nothing to warn him.

As always, democracy’s real heroes are those who claim it for themselves. Which is why the best story to emerge from the Ukrainian election may be that of Natalia Dimitruk, an interpreter for the deaf on the Ukrainian state TV channel UT-1. On the night the channel’s predictably vacuous anchor read the official results — Viktor Yanukovich was declared the victor over Viktor Yushchenko — Dimitruk stood in the corner of the screen signing a radically different message: "The results announced by the Central Election Commission are rigged. Do not believe them."

Watching this rebroadcast on the BBC complete with translation, I could feel the floor melting away — it was like stumbling into a world invented by Philip K. Dick — and I could only imagine how deaf people all over the Ukraine must have reacted to such audacious subversion. Then again, as a journalist in one of the world’s cushiest media countries, I find it easier to identify with their surprise than with Dimitruk’s moral courage in risking everything — "I do not know if you will see me again," her hands informed her audience — to tell a truth that might help realize democracy. Her lonely heroism is a reminder that, while the future may belong to crowds, as Don DeLillo so famously put it, crowds are born of individuals.

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