12:00 AM

Ohio State's Ukrainian Democracy Program critical in wake of Russian surge

As Russia flexes military muscle and exerts resolute political pressure on former member states of its empire, fears are surging over the strategically important Ukraine. Could it be the next target after Georgia?

That anxiety is of major significance to a program designed to bolster democracy in the Ukraine, which will be run through The Ohio State University.

The Ukraine has been a stalwart of freedom in the region, in large part due to the Parliamentary Development Project sponsored by the United States Agency on International Development (USAID) and now being managed by Ohio State's John Glenn School of Public Affairs.

Ohio State signed a new $4 million, three-year contract to operate the USAID-funded PDP in the Ukraine, the world's longest-running, sustained effort to promote democracy. The program is credited with helping Ukraine's legislature pass significant reforms that have contributed to democratic and economic transitions in that country, said Charles Wise, director of the Glenn School and the project's chief executive since its inception in 1994

"Ukraine is a shining star in terms of a having a functioning legislature compared to any other country in the former Soviet Union. They have real contested elections and they make laws that matter," Wise said. "The federal government has called this a 'model' program that can be used as a template in other countries of the world."

The new contract runs from September 2008 through May 31, 2011. The Glenn School will act as a subcontractor for the project, which intends to:

• Develop an effective and democratic management system within the Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.

• Improve relations between the legislative and executive government branches.

• Increase citizen access and feedback on legislative processes.

The PDP office located in Kiev has about 15 employees. In addition to the legislative body, the country also elects a president who nominates a prime minister, which the parliament approves. The PDP is a non-partisan program and interacts with all political parties within the country.

The work of the PDP is more critical than ever, not just in the Ukraine, but for the entire region. In 2005, then Russian President Valdimir Putin in a national address called the break up of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." These former Soviet states are still considered the "near abroad" by Russia.

Tensions are running higher in part because both Georgia and Ukraine have applied to join NATO, a move vigorously opposed by Russia. During the recent Georgian crisis, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko offered to throw open the doors to the West to install a missile defense system. Earlier this year, Russia threatened to aim nuclear missiles at the Ukraine if it joined NATO.

Further complications include Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas that flows through Ukraine. Europe gets 25 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, while Ukraine relies on Russia for 80 percent of its natural gas. In 2006, Russia cut those supplies and raised its prices to Ukraine. A repeat of that dispute would devastate Ukraine's economy.

With Russian ratcheting up pressure in the region, shoring up democracy takes on new meaning. Russia's gains in Georgia have region-wide ramifications, said Wise. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor said, "If Ukraine doesn't move to the West, Russia's nostalgia for an imperial role is going to intensify, and therefore, Russia will be more of a problem."

Wise agreed.

"If Russia can destabilize the region, political leaders become more pliable and less interested in joining the West," Wise said. "That becomes incentive for autocrats to shut down other democracies."

Despite progress, much work remains for the PDP. Government in Ukraine remains divided and politically deadlocked, with only a thin pro-West majority in the Rada. The divisions threaten economic growth, security and NATO membership.

In the past, the PDP helped develop the Rada, while offering advice and options to decision makers. Under the extended USAID contract, efforts will be expanded, but the PDP will not provide guidance related to recent regional events.

Ukraine gained independence in 1991. The country has 46 million people; about 14 million of which speak Russian, mostly located in the east and south in the Crimea. Corruption and power struggles continue to plague the country, with conflicts between the oligarchs and the reformers frequently coming out in legislative battles.