Against stiff odds, it looks as though Viktor Yushchenko will become the next president of Ukraine. Yushchenko's solid victory in a second runoff election held Dec. 26 came after the country's Supreme Court invalidated the results of an initial ballot in which the government-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, prevailed amidst widespread and compelling allegations of electoral fraud. The image of ordinary Ukrainians braving the snow and wind to protest such abuses, and ultimately to force the do-over, was reminiscent of the autumn of 1989.
Yet regardless of the final result, recent events in Ukraine represent a triumph. Not a triumph for democracy, but for liberal democracy. The overwhelming public support shown for Yushchenko in the past few weeks reminds us that elections are not enough. To be truly effective and truly sustainable, representative democratic government must be built fundamentally on the rule of law, civil liberties, political pluralism and an independent press.
The situation in Ukraine is unique because of how deeply it contrasts with the recent past in the region, most notably in Russia. Since he took office in 2000, President Vladimir Putin has sought to dismantle the fragile foundations of liberal democracy in Russia. He has used the levers of government to influence national elections and reinforce his own political position. He has virtually eliminated the once flourishing independent media and warned foreign aid organizations in Russia not to criticize his regime. He has launched numerous criminal prosecutions for blatantly political ends. Most recently, following the tragic school massacre in Beslan, he has set out to amass unprecedented power in the hands of the central government.
Putin's efforts to undermine the principles of liberal democracy have gone well beyond Russia's borders. Plainly yearning for the days of Soviet satellites, Putin's Russia has helped suppress political resistance in Moldova, attempted to influence elections in Georgia, and encouraged the ultra-repressive regime in Belarus.
Indeed, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine itself has largely followed this model. Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma presided for 10 years over a state in which political repression and corruption were endemic. In keeping with this script, Putin joined Kuchma to cheer for Yanukovych in the campaign's (initial) final days. Then, only hours after the first runoff had concluded, Putin declared - twice - that Yanukovych had won, and congratulated him on his ill-gotten victory.
Try as he might, however, Putin did not deter a large portion of the Ukrainian public. In one of the most impressive displays of peaceful political resistance since the Velvet Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Ukraine's citizens intelligently protested not so much the result of the election as the process.
It is the process that matters for liberal democracy. Any state can hold elections. Almost all do. But the true measure of a government that claims to be democratic is whether those elections are fair and transparent and based on a system of law that protects political pluralism, an independent and critical press, and basic civil liberties.
Ukraine is obviously nowhere near a liberal democracy. But recent weeks demonstrate that its appetite for the idea is growing. As the peoples of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union showed a decade and a half ago, elections are not the only important element of a functioning democratic order. Equally important, if not more so, are the legal, political and social institutions that preserve citizens' rights in between elections and ensure that those elections continue to take place.
Jonathan S. Kallmer practices international trade law in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his own.