The Washington Post Column

The New Iron Curtain

Before the election, the government mobilized 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 Sunday in Ukraine. It was a description of the referendum that took place in Soviet-occupied communist 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.

But 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 the Committee of Civic Voters, a volunteer group with branches all over Ukraine, the techniques haven’t changed much in 60 years. In the Sumy region, they record, a member of the electoral commission was beaten up by unidentified thugs. At one polling station, “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 transporting voters from one polling station to the next.

There was, in other words, not much that was subtle about the disruption of the election — no arguments about hanging chads or “secret software” here — and not much that was surprising about the result. Polls taken before and after the vote showed a large margin of support for Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western liberal. Nevertheless, victory has been declared for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow candidate. He has already received warm congratulations from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who 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 will mark 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, not counting the irregularities that were belatedly uncovered in the election of Putin himself.

All of these places do, it is true, seem obscure and faraway to Americans. But so did the events 60 years ago in Poland, at least until it became clear that they were part of a pattern: 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 center 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. To the east, Russia will control the “managed democracies” of the former U.S.S.R., keeping the media muzzled, elections massaged and the economies in thrall to a handful of mostly Russian billionaires. Using primarily economic means — control over oil pipelines, corrupt investment funds, shady companies — the Russians may even, like their Soviet predecessors, begin to work at undermining Western stability.

This is not an inevitable scenario. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and 2004 is not 1946. 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. The Ukrainian opposition put 200,000 protesters on the streets of Kiev yesterday, many of whom are too young to recall Nazi or Soviet totalitarianism, and who 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.

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 intentions in former Soviet territories. Beyond that, all that is needed is a promise — even an implied promise — that when the specter of this new iron curtain is removed, Ukraine too will be welcomed by the nations on the other side.