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Ukraine must also win the fight for democracy

War isn’t Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s only problem.  The conflict in the east of the country is dominating media coverage and the political agenda, but when Ukraine’s newly elected president meets today with President Obama and members of Congress, they should press him to explain what he’s doing to fight the country’s chronic corruption, protect minorities from discrimination, and encourage a new politics to flourish.

Russian-supported aggression in the east has diverted the momentum for political reform, born at the Maidan uprisings, which ousted the Yanukovich regime earlier this year. Back then Ukranians sought to overthrow not just the government but also the old way of doing things. They want a real democracy, not one dominated by the old oligarchies.

{mosads}The Ukrainian crisis runs deep. The same politics that have dominated the country since the breakup of the Soviet Union persist today. Beyond the proxy war between the East and the West lie essential, unsettled questions about the future of Ukraine and the role its citizens will play in shaping it.

After false starts in 1989 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 2004 Orange Revolution, the new government must steer political energy towards a fresh start despite efforts of the Kremlin to sabotage progress. Unless Ukraine can show that it’s becoming a vibrant democracy, it will be inviting political unrest, which could, in turn, result in an escalation and expansion of open warfare in its east.

Ukrainian civil society leaders told me when I was in Kyiv this summer that an open political process with transparent funding and other democratic reforms were essential. With parliamentary elections due next month, indicators that a new citizen democracy is taking shape are mixed.

In one instance, in late July a district court in Mykolaiv found a man not guilty of supplying cannabis due to rights-violations by the police and the prosecutor. The ruling is something of a landmark, and appears to be a hopeful sign in the important fight against judicial corruption.

But also in July the second annual Kyiv Pride March was cancelled after local authorities failed to guarantee to protect it. A month earlier LGBT activist Blogdan Globa was denied membership of the centrist Democratic Alliance Party, a newer political party that won support for its part in the Maidan protests.

Democratic Alliance leader Vasyl Gatsko said that Globa’s views differed from the party’s on family values. “Our position is that family is made up of a man and a woman,” he said. Senior Ukrainian political figures haven’t spoken out publicly for the rights of LGBT people, a problem that administration officials and members of congress should spotlight this week with President Poroshenko.

And while there has been a drop in the number of antisemitic attacks to a rate lower than that of many other western European countries along with an apparent electoral decline for the extreme right, ethnic minorities are still vulnerable to attacks. Extreme nationalist militia fighters are helping Ukrainian security forces battle Russian-backed separatists in the east, and will need to be carefully demobilized when the conflict ends.

The crisis in Ukraine presents the greatest threat to European stability since the end of the Cold War and ranks as a major priority for Washington. Poroshenko needs to hear this week in Washington that the U.S. government both understands the difficulties of the shooting war and expects democratic reform. A Ukraine that promotes human rights and the rule of law is in in the best interests of both the region and the United States. A Ukraine that doesn’t make space for new politics to breathe is more likely to be volatile.

Human rights activists in Ukraine kept telling me that now is the country’s best, and maybe last, chance to get things right. Ukraine can’t afford to win the war in the east but lose its shot at democracy.

Dooley is the Human Rights Defenders director at Human Rights First @dooley_dooley


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