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Opinion: Columnists

The stakes are high in Ukraine, with freedom on the line

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Opinion,James Jay Carafano,Columnists,Ukraine

On June 10, 1988, the fairgrounds of the Tallinn Song Festival erupted in a spontaneous mass sing-along. And what the crowd sang were patriotic hymns. It was the start of the "Singing Revolution."

For the next three years, large crowds of Estonians gathered regularly to belt out nationalist songs long forbidden by their Russian overlords. Eventually, they prevailed.

After years of peaceful public protest, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all gained full independence from Moscow in 1991. That same year the Ukraine also declared itself an independent, democratic state.

Those bloodless revolutions produced the greatest advance of freedom in Europe since V-E Day. Now, that advance is in danger of being rolled back.

Moscow is making a concerted effort to reassert domination over its former satellites, and things have turned bloody. The people have no desire to go quietly.

The angry crowds filling the streets of the Ukrainian capital are not singing. They are shouting themselves hoarse in an attempt to keep the freedom won a decade ago.

Last year, the Ukraine and European Union were negotiating a trade and economic deal that would have tied the country's market more closely to the West. Russia responded with a massive campaign of intimidation, threatening the Ukraine with higher tariffs and non-tariff penalties if Kiev dared sign on with their western neighbors.

Moscow offered the Ukrainians a carrot as well: $15 billion in loans, credits, and natural gas discounts. Kiev’s leaders regarded it as “an offer they couldn’t refuse” — and turned down the EU deal.

The citizenry took to the streets in anger — and stayed there. Last month, the government passed legislation effectively banning public demonstrations. Leading dissidents were kidnapped, journalists beaten. But the streets remain packed with protestors.

Today, the government teeters on collapse. No one is sure what might follow.

Russia isn't about to let the Ukraine slip easily away. Once the Olympics at Sochi are over, you can expect Moscow to return to full-scale meddling in Kiev.

It is tragic to see the light of liberty fade again on the frontiers of freedom. And there’s more than enough blame to go around.

Successive Ukrainian governments have squandered the nation's post-Soviet opportunity. Rather than march steadily toward free markets, smaller government and greater political freedom, Kiev’s backsliding in these areas has produced falling scores in both the Freedom House Index and the HeritageFoundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom.

The European Union, for its part, has made only indifferent efforts to integrate troubled nations like the Ukraine and Georgia, which are doubly cursed by living next door to Moscow. Instead, the EU is becoming acutely bipolar. All the South cares about is bailouts and getting out from under "austerity." Only the Northern EU nations worry about the growing influence of an illiberal, corrupt, and undemocratic Moscow.

President Obama has helped sow the seeds of despair as well. The Russian "reset" has not only failed to get cooperation on furthering U.S. interests, it has done nothing to curb Moscow's determination to be the bully of the neighborhood.

It was nice of the president to mention the Ukrainians' fight for freedom during his State of the Union address. It would have been even better if during his presidency had a track record of advancing freedom, free markets and mutual security in the Western world.

For now, the very least the U.S. can do is stand up for the Ukrainian people: Help document human rights violations committed by Ukrainian authorities and their henchmen; shine a light on Russian meddling, and denounce abuses through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
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James Jay Carafano

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The Washington Examiner