A new iron curtain now threatens Europe

Before the election, the government mobilised groups of thugs to harass voters. On the day of the election, police prevented thousands of opposition activists from voting at all. Nevertheless, when the votes were counted, it was clear that the opposition had won by a large margin. As a result, the ruling party decided to falsify the result, and declared victory. Immediately, the Russians sent their fraternal congratulations.

No, that was not a description of the presidential election that took place last weekend in Ukraine. It was a description of the referendum that took place in Soviet-occupied Poland in June 1946. Although blatantly falsified, that referendum provided the spurious legitimacy that allowed Poland’s Soviet-backed communist leadership to remain in power for the subsequent half-century.

Although that infamous Polish election took place nearly 60 years ago, there are good reasons why descriptions make it sound so much like last weekend in Ukraine. According to hundreds of election observers, the techniques haven’t changed much since then.

The Committee of Civic Voters, a longstanding volunteer group with branches all over Ukraine, recorded that, among other things, a member of the electoral commission in the Sumy region was beaten up by unidentified thugs; at another, “criminals” disrupted the voting and destroyed the ballot boxes with clubs. In Cherkassy, a polling site inspector was found dead. More “criminals” broke polling station windows and destroyed ballot boxes. In the Zaporozhye region and in Kharkov, observers saw buses taking voters from one polling station to the next. Boxes of counterfeit absentee ballots were openly distributed at many polling stations, so that voters could vote more than once. There was no doubt they were fake, since the type in which they were printed differed visibly from the official versions.

There was, in other words, not much that was subtle about the disruption of this election – no “hanging chads” here – and not much that was surprising about the result. Opinion polls taken before and after the vote showed a large margin of support for Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western and, more importantly, a pro-democracy liberal. Nevertheless, victory was prematurely declared for Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate who is deeply corrupt, reliably pro-Moscow and adamantly opposed to Ukraine’s entry into Western institutions.
Although a Ukrainian judge has put the final verdict in suspense, Yanukovych has already received warm congratulations from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who had backed him with praise, money and, possibly, some advice on how to steal elections. It can’t be a coincidence that if the Ukrainian election is settled in Moscow’s favor, it be the third such dubious vote in Russia’s “sphere of influence” in the past two months, following the polls in Belarus and the separatist province of Abkhazia. That, of course, is not counting the irregularities belatedly uncovered in the election of Putin himself.
All of these places do, it is true, seem obscure and faraway to Britons. But so did the events 60 years ago in Poland, at least until it became clear that they were part of a pattern. After all, 1946 was also the year that Winston Churchill gave his celebrated speech describing the “iron curtain” that had descended across Europe, and predicting the onset of the Cold War. Looking back, we may also one day see 2004 as the year when a new iron curtain descended across Europe, dividing the continent not through the centre of Germany but along the eastern Polish border.
To the west, the democracies of western and central Europe will remain more or less stable members of the European Union and Nato, at least for the time being. To the east, Russia will use local collaborators and proxies to control the “managed democracies” of the former USSR, keeping the media muzzled, elections massaged and the economies in thrall to a handful of mostly Russian billionaires, which is more or less what happens now. Eventually, using primarily economic means – control over oil pipelines, corrupt investment funds, shady companies – the Russians could, like their Soviet predecessors, begin to work at undermining Western stability. The evidence from recent financial scandals in central Europe shows that they have started.
This is not an inevitable outcome. Ukraine is neither as turbulent, nor as violent, nor as physically cut off from the world as were the central European states after the Second World War; 2004 is not 1946. The Ukrainian opposition put 200,000 protesters on the streets of Kiev this week, many of whom are too young to recall Nazi or Soviet totalitarianism, and therefore haven’t experienced the intimidation and fear felt by their parents and grandparents. Most have access to communication and outside information – through the internet, satellite television, cell phones – that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. Even if this weekend’s stand-off ends in a declaration of victory for Yanukovych, at least they’ll remember what happened, and have the means to keep in touch with one another in the future.
More to the point, Russia is not the Soviet Union. Russians have, it is true, the classic mindset of a former imperial power. Some remember Kiev as their medieval capital; others recall holidays at Ukraine’s Black Sea resorts. Still others feel about Ukraine the way France felt about Algeria: it has been a part of our empire for so long, we can’t bear to see it separated. But it is still possible that younger Russians, who have the same access to the outside world as Ukrainians, and have grown up without any personal memories of empire, will eventually want their country to become a part of the global economy, and of the community of democratic nations, even if their current president does not.
The West, and especially western Europe, can and should encourage them. To do so is not difficult, but it does require that we understand what is happening, call things by their real names, and drop any of our remaining illusions about President Putin’s current intentions in former Soviet territories.
As I say, the struggle in Kiev is not simply between “Russian influence” or “Western influence”. The choice before Ukraine, and ultimately Russia, is over what kind of system will rule: closed or open, authoritarian or democratic, oligarchic or liberal. We should make clear we understand what is at stake. Beyond that, all that is needed is a promise – even an implied promise – that when the spectre of this new iron curtain is removed, Ukraine too will be welcomed by the nations of the West.