Lloyd Axworthy is the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg and a former minister of foreign affairs; Bill Balan is the vice-president of finance and administration at the University of Winnipeg.
Two elderly ladies standing on a sidewalk memorial were honouring a young hero who gave his life during the Maidan protests in Kiev. When they discovered that we were members of an international team to assess the prospects of the forthcoming presidential election, they vented their feelings about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Their strongly held view was that Mr. Putin would not permit an election to take place because his real ambition was to take control of their country. This was not an isolated view. The fear of Mr. Putin sabotaging the electoral process came up in our discussions with government officials, non-governmental organizations, political candidates, journalists and members of the academy. They were issuing a wake-up call, that we in the West should not turn the page or switch the channel just because the drama of the Russian invasion of Crimea is passing. The next six weeks are critical to the “survival of Ukraine” said a tired, stressed but dedicated senior official of the present interim government.
There is a need for a substantial number of international observers to verify the fairness of the election and to inform on attempts at spreading misinformation. In addition, there is a need for financial support to provide effective law enforcement to ensure security of the voters, election administrators and observers from the provocative disruptions by Russian sponsored agitators in the eastern and southern regions. Additionally, there must be strong diplomatic efforts with a threat of increased sanctions to deter further Russian cross border disruptions.
This threat of the Russians is not the only hurdle the Ukrainians face.
There are serious financial demands, a combination of dysfunctional economic policies over the past decade exacerbated by the exorbitant misuse of public funds by past presidents for lavish dachas and monopoly businesses for relatives – just one example of the endemic corruption in the system, which has led to a country dominated by powerful and exceedingly wealthy oligarchs.
There is a counter point to these risks: EuroMaidan, the three-month-long civic protest not only forced out a sitting president, but unleashed strong waves of reform demands aiming at an open, transparent, honest government based on values of dignity and human rights.
An extraordinary amount of new legislation on judicial accountability, fair elections and anti-corruption has been passed or were on the agenda by the interim government. A group of young leaders of Maidan have tabled a 15-point Charter of Reanimation Reforms and are taking to the countryside to carry the message of change. The women’s federation is mobilizing a network throughout the country to advance political rights of women. Journalists and political activists are beginning to openly challenge the rule of the oligarchs. Various strata of Ukrainians see this as a rare moment of opportunity to recast and reset the direction of the country. The political parties are committing to follow through on the spirit of Maidan. It is an extraordinary opportunity of witnessing a country going through a tectonic shift in the basic foundations of their society.
Will it work? Our answer is yes, maybe. First there will have to be a clear coherent, co-ordinated effort by Ukrainians and their allies in the West to counteract Mr. Putin’s ambitions to disrupt and deceive. That will take more than rhetoric. It will take contact-group agreements at the international level, an interagency team of national level officials and ministers to be an active swat team to mobilize and integrate actions, and form a table of dialogue at the regional level, bringing together the parties, non-governmental organizations, officials, and enforcement authorities to manage the governance of the election process at the local level.
It will also take a much more active involvement of democracies and their publics, seeing this not as a local European hot spot, but a crossroads for the political security and economic future for all of us. Adding Ukraine to the community of democracies becomes a big plus in sustaining an international order based on rule of law and principles of participation. A Russian takeover has the opposite effect.
Pay heed to the wake-up call of those two mourning women on European Square. They were speaking to us all.