Ukraine's corrupt, thuggish government faces the choice of retreating to the insular world it knew as part of the Soviet Union or opening to liberalism, a free-market economy and democracy. This week's stolen election points in the wrong direction, but there is still time to reverse the fraud and join the forward march of history.
To its credit, the Bush administration is not giving outgoing President Leonid D. Kuchma and his minions a pass because of their nation's membership in the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq, where Ukraine has 1,600 troops. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spoke Wednesday of "consequences" if Kuchma's favorite, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, was installed as president over opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.
The Ukrainian Central Election Commission declared Yanukovich the winner Wednesday, but Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and other international monitors said Sunday's balloting was farcical. Yushchenko backers saw voters casting ballots twice and students being forced to vote for Yanukovich. An exit poll partly financed by the U.S. showed Yushchenko as the landslide winner.
Powell telephoned Kuchma on Wednesday to warn against using violence against the more than 100,000 Yushchenko supporters who braved snow to fill Independence Square in Kiev, the capital. The protests against voter fraud were a heartening display of freedom that recalled the peaceful revolutions in the former Czechoslovakia and the onetime Soviet territory of Georgia.
Powell also made an equally important call to the Russian foreign minister to urge an investigation of the balloting. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin campaigned for Yanukovich and congratulated him on his victory -- two days before the results were official. Putin's own consolidation of power is reminiscent of the days of the Soviet empire. He fears what would happen under the pro-Western Yushchenko, who favors membership in the European Union and NATO -- changes that would lessen Ukraine's dependence on Moscow. But even with Yushchenko in power, Ukraine would need to maintain close economic ties with Russia. The population in eastern Ukraine, much of it Russian-speaking, has traditionally looked toward Moscow and provides the bulk of Yanukovich's support.
The EU strongly protested the election fraud and should be equally outspoken during its summit with Putin today in the Netherlands. The United States and European nations should remind Putin, Kuchma and Yanukovich of Ukraine's need for foreign aid and the desire of its top officials for visas to visit other countries.
Ukraine stands to reap the benefits that other former Soviet territories or client states have gained once out from under Moscow's yoke. The greatest of them is the right to choose their own leaders and be governed by the people's legitimate representatives.