More than five years ago, a Western-funded exit poll challenged the official results of the presidential election in Ukraine and sparked the drama that became known as the Orange Revolution. Huge crowds protested voting fraud, the courts ordered a new election and the Kremlin’s candidate was forced to concede defeat.
When Ukrainians cast ballots for a new president on Sunday, the independent research groups behind that exit poll will be out in force again. But the poll took a hit after the first round of the election last month when it reported results at odds with those of other surveys as well as the final vote tally. What went wrong? A budget shortfall had forced organisers to cut the number of districts covered.
The poll organisers’ difficulties illustrate a larger phenomenon: US financial aid intended to bolster Ukraine’s fledgling democracy has fallen sharply in recent years despite Washington’s rhetorical support for this former Soviet republic after the Orange Revolution.
The decline reflects what some call “Ukraine fatigue,” or growing Western impatience with the political infighting that has paralysed the Ukrainian government since 2005. But analysts say it also highlights Washington’s tendency to focus on elections and breakthroughs like the Orange Revolution instead of the difficult work of building institutions such as independent courts, free media and a vigorous civil society.
The temptation — for policymakers as well as activists — is to label countries such as Ukraine “democratic enough” and move on to the next dictatorship. But many scholars say the United States could have a greater impact by concentrating on shoring up the dozens of weak democracies worldwide that are so troubled by poor governance that they appear to be at risk of backsliding.
Some say Ukraine, for example, remains vulnerable to an authoritarian comeback similar to the one mounted by Vladimir Putin in Russia. Polls in Ukraine, a nation of 46 million strategically located on the Black Sea between Russia and the West, show deep frustration with democracy. Less than half say Sunday’s vote will be fair, and nearly three-quarters say Ukraine is headed toward instability.
In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post. For additional content from, visit www.washingtonpost.com