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Walesa, Havel shine again in crisis Add to ...

Eastern Europe's lions in winter have rediscovered their roar.

When Ukraine descended into post-election confusion this week, the most stirring pleas for a peaceful resolution came not from the West but from Warsaw and Prague.

Communist-era freedom fighters Lech Walesa and Václav Havel have emerged from the shadows to offer Ukraine's opposition some poignant and very personal counsel born of their own struggles for democracy.

“I opposed the Soviet Union and I opposed communism and I came out victorious,” Mr. Walesa, the founder of Poland's Solidarity (Solidarnosc) movement and his country's first democratically elected president, told a huge crowd that massed on Mr.'s Independence Square this week. “Ukraine has a chance.”

Mr. Havel, a former president and dissident playwright who led the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, made an impassioned plea to Ukrainians to keep their protests peaceful.

“I know from my own experience how important it is not to let oneself be provoked to violence,” he said.

Their appeals to hearts and minds in Ukraine – whose border became the new frontier between East and West when the European Union expanded in May – underscore the eagerness of the EU's ex-communist newcomers to swiftly contain any trouble in the old Soviet neighbourhood.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski arrived in Ukraine on Friday to help broker talks between the government and western-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who contends that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych stole last Sunday's presidential election.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus also travelled to Ukraine to help mediate an end to the crisis.

“We cannot stay away from what now is happening in Ukraine,” parliament speaker Arturas Paulauskas said Friday in Vilnius.

The East European shuttle diplomacy reflects how “Poland and the Baltic countries, from their own history, still fear a possible expansion of Russia,” Italy's La Repubblica newspaper noted this week.

Ukraine's bitter electoral dispute also sent ripples of concern across Romania, which holds key presidential and parliamentary elections Sunday. Western diplomats, political analysts and the opposition have voiced concerns about possible vote fraud there, too.

“There are many similarities between what is happening in Ukraine and Romania,” Cozmin Gusa, a senior member of Romania's opposition Justice and Truth Alliance, said in an interview.

Both countries use blue as the colour of their ruling parties and orange to denote the opposition. In Romania, Ukraine's standoff has evoked memories of mass demonstrations that turned violent in 1990, when pro-democracy supporters held protests against the continuing dominance of former communists even after their revolution.

The standoff between the pro-Kremlin Mr. Yanukovych and the pro-West Mr. Yushchenko has created an imperfect but potent parallel to the anti-communist uprisings of 15 years ago.

Although leaders from around the world have reached out to Yushchenko, the expressions of solidarity from former Warsaw Pact nations have had a special resonance.

“Walesa! Walesa!” the crowd in Kiev shouted Thursday at the sight of the 61-year-old former shipyard electrician who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and now spends most of his time on the speaking circuit addressing concerns such as globalization.

Mr. Havel, 68, stepped down as president in February, 2003, and has been in and out of hospitals with chronic health problems.

This week, though, both flashed a bit of their old form.

Mr. Walesa, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr. Yushchenko, sounded like he was back in Gdansk with a bullhorn in his hand.

“All my life I fought for freedom and democracy, and my battle culminated in success,” declared Mr. Walesa, who urged demonstrators to “please take care of each other and also think of tomorrow, because tomorrow your emotions and enthusiasm are needed to bring Ukraine to a place where it deserves to be.”

Mr. Havel's demand that the Ukrainian government overturn the election results was reminiscent of his 1989 pro-democracy speeches to students on Prague's Wenceslas Square.

“Let me greet you in these dramatic days when the fate of your country for many years to come is at stake,” Mr. Havel said in a message to the opposition, reassuring them the future “is in your hands.”

“All respectable local and international organizations agree that your demands are just,” he said, urging Ukrainian journalists: “Don't let yourself be intimidated. Write the truth about what is happening in your country.”

Reflecting the anxiety in Eastern Europe over trouble brewing so close to home, several hundred Ukrainians living in the Czech Republic staged spirited protests outside the Russian embassy in Prague this week to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin's support of Mr. Yanukovych.

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