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EDITORIAL

Ukraine's East-West clash

UKRAINE is at boiling point. The nation faces a choice between moving towards a European-style democracy and relapse, back to the sinister embrace of Soviet Eurasia.
Ambassadors to Ukraine and Ukrainian ambassadors to other countries have been busier than ever, the former voicing concerns over the Ukrainian presidential run-off elections and related fraud suspicions, and the latter calming fears.
The international community is questioning the preliminary results of the election and is calling for an immediate investigation.

UKRAINE is at boiling point. The nation faces a choice between moving towards a European-style democracy and relapse, back to the sinister embrace of Soviet Eurasia.

Ambassadors to Ukraine and Ukrainian ambassadors to other countries have been busier than ever, the former voicing concerns over the Ukrainian presidential run-off elections and related fraud suspicions, and the latter calming fears.

The international community is questioning the preliminary results of the election and is calling for an immediate investigation.

The Slovak media tried to capture the attention of the Slovak public by describing the post-election crisis in Ukraine as a "Revolution", comparing it to the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution.

Ukraine seems to be suffering from historical schizophrenia. The country is split into pro-western and pro-Soviet factions, which, after all, was a problem that plagued Slovakia after the collapse of the communist regime as well.

But even Slovakia shares an eastern border with Ukraine; even though it is a strategic neighbour, Slovaks have remained rather apathetic about the Orange Revolution.

The public still vividly remembers the friendly relationship that former Slovak President Rudolf Schuster maintained with onetime Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. Slovakia kept this friendship alive despite the world having turned its back on the man who prolonged Soviet-era agony in the region.

Political scientists warned Schuster against a cosy relationship with a man that the western world condemned for a lack of respect for democracy. It didn't stop Schuster from calling Kuchma a "good friend" or spending his 2003 holiday with the Ukrainian despot.

At the time, the Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry declared Schuster's holiday "his private business".

Earlier, in 2002, Schuster had demonstrated his friendly ties with Kuchma by visiting with him during a NATO summit in Prague. The Ukrainian had been struck from the official invitation list on suspicion of selling a radar system to Iraq.

As a reward for his show of allegiance, Schuster received a very odd gift indeed from his good friend Kuchma: an intercontinental ballistic rocket SS-24 made in Ukraine.

By contrast, another Slovak former president, Michal Kováč, rushed to Ukraine in November to support the efforts of the Ukrainian citizens to hold fair presidential elections.

Using slightly milder rhetoric than his western colleagues, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda also said he hopes that the current situation in Ukraine would be resolved at the negotiation table.

According to Dzurinda, the results of the Ukrainian presidential elections could not be accepted under the circumstances. Not with the foreign observers gathering around the opposition declaring that democratic principles had been breached.

Before the elections, at a June 29 NATO summit in Istanbul, Dzurinda urged the Ukrainian government to improve democracy and ensure the legitimacy of its elections.

These formal statements gain some value once compared to the position taken by Schuster a few years earlier.

If Ukraine builds a stable bridge with the west, however, the country could become tough competition for Slovakia. Ukraine could offer even cheaper labour to foreign investors and serve as a gate to remote eastern countries hungry for investments.

In the past, Slovakia has had to try and ignite business activities with Ukraine.

However, over the past decade, the Ukrainian media has complained that the former iron curtain in Slovakia was replaced by a velvet one, as Slovakia remained reluctant to liberalise its border regime with Ukraine.

To get in line with Brussels ahead of European Union accession, Slovakia introduced visas for Ukrainians in 2000. Slovakia wanted to assure the EU that its future external border was watertight.

Prior to introducing visa regulations, some 1,200,000 Ukrainians crossed the border annually. In 2002, with the new requirements, that number dropped to 54,000.

In 2003, Foreign Ministry State Secretary József Berényi called for the liberalisation of the border regime with Ukraine and the removal of visa fees for Ukrainian citizens.

If violent conflict breaks out in Ukraine, however, Slovakia will most probably become one of the target countries for Ukrainian refugees.

With Slovakia's notorious record for rejecting asylum to refugees, it would certainly have its hands full. Perhaps the country would have to become more open towards refugees.

Some analysts have already compared the situation in Ukraine to 1968, when the invasion forced hundreds of thousands of people out of the former Czechoslovakia into Austria and Germany. Hopefully, the path of Ukraine to democracy will be less painful.


By Beata Balogová

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