Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Don't miss: Richard Holbrooke from Kyiv

The former Clinton Administration Ambassador to the UN, and Kerry adviser, has some sharp observations in his inaugural column (it will run monthly) in the WaPo. Here are the choice morsels:

There is little doubt that Yushchenko will soon be president. Any attempt by the government to declare his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the winner would result in overwhelming demonstrations, national paralysis and, possibly, civil war. But that catastrophic outcome is far less likely than was once feared. Leading political figures and even military officers are defecting daily to Yushchenko, and Yanukovych's strongest supporter, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been isolated and humiliated. Even President Leonid Kuchma, who ruled with nearly total power for the past 10 years, implicitly acknowledges the inevitability of Yushchenko as he sits in a modest suburban villa, miles from his offices in central Kyiv, which, he says angrily, are "hard to use" at the moment. Nothing symbolizes more clearly the rapid flow of power out of the government's hands.

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Make no mistake about it: 2004 has been Putin's "annus horribilis," the year in which he "lost" Georgia and Ukraine to anti-Russian popular revolutions, the year of Yukos and the school massacre at Beslan, a year in which, while remaining popular at home, he lost credibility throughout the rest of the world. His objective in Ukraine -- to help the candidate preferred in Moscow -- was entirely rational, but his personal behavior has been puzzling, petulant and self-demeaning. He must now either look for a way to back down quickly and learn to live with Yushchenko or -- if he tries to stir up separatism in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine or punish Ukraine economically -- risk destroying his relations with much of the West.

Ironically, Putin's heavy-handedness, so reminiscent of the Soviet era, is likely to have an effect opposite to its intent -- and to accelerate Ukraine's quest for NATO and E.U. membership. As one of Yushchenko's closest advisers put it, "After what Putin has already done, how can we afford to risk floating between East and West?"

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