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Democracy's hero in Ukraine

FROM HIS prison cell on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela fired the hopes of millions of South Africans that the chains of apartheid could be broken. Three years after his release, Mandela was elected his country's first postapartheid president. For more than a decade Vaclav Havel led a dissident movement that challenged the moral authority of Czechoslovakia's Stalinist regime. Then, in 1989, he emerged as the leader of the Velvet Revolution and a year later became the Czechs' first democratically elected president after more than half a century of fascist and Communist domination.

Modern heroes like Mandela and Havel are in short supply. So it is a cause for celebration when another bursts onto the world stage. Last fall, Viktor Yushchenko galvanized a democratic revolution in Ukraine, a country at the heart of the former Soviet Union. Battling against enormous odds and at great personal risk, Yushchenko confronted a corrupt and oppressive oligarchy rooted deeply in the old Soviet system. Inspired by his courage, millions of Ukrainians flocked to his cause and propelled him to victory in an ''Orange Revolution" that recalled the Czechs' Velvet uprising 15 years earlier.

What made Yushchenko a hero of democracy? A Soviet-trained economist, he began his career as an accountant in provincial obscurity, emerging after the collapse of the Soviet Union as an economic reformer and head of the Ukrainian National Bank. He became prime minister in 1999. When his reform policies began to threaten the power of the oligarchs, he was fired by the president. Out of office, Yushchenko built Ukraine's first popular democratic opposition movement, winning the largest bloc of seats in parliamentary elections in 2002 and, a year later, beginning his drive for the presidency.

During the campaign, the candidate became a profile in courage. Harassed and blocked at every turn by state operatives intent on undermining his political movement and destroying his personal credibility, Yushchenko refused to be intimidated.

He was subjected to a steady stream of lies and distortions by the government-controlled media, which refused to grant him access to defend himself. His plane was denied landing privileges just before major campaign events. Barriers went up to slow his ground travel. His car was forced off the road. People working for him were arrested on false charges. And worst of all, Yushchenko himself was the victim of a near-fatal poisoning by dioxin which required him to be hospitalized for several crucial weeks two months before the election and left him severely weakened and disfigured.

But this was just a prelude for what followed. When the old regime found it could not terrorize Yushchenko into abandoning his campaign, it went into overdrive to steal the election. International observers reported massive fraud on election day, but state officials declared the regime's candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, to be the winner. Hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters filled the streets of Kiev for two weeks and demanded a new election.

Yushchenko demonstrated his political courage by calming the protesters and calling for a review of the fraud charges by the Ukrainian Parliament and Supreme Court. He knew that pursuing this constitutional route might make it more difficult to secure victory than simply by stirring up the massive crowds, but he wanted to avoid the long-term instability that might result from street-driven politics. As it turned out, Ukraine's national institutions validated the findings of the international observers. A new election was held, which Yushchenko won by a resounding margin of 52 to 44 percent of the vote, and on Jan. 11, he was sworn in as president.

Today, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation honors Viktor Yushchenko with its 2005 Profile in Courage Award. Announcing the award last month, Caroline Kennedy, president of the Kennedy Library Foundation, cited the Ukrainian leader's ''commitment to freedom and the democratic process as a powerful example of how one person can truly make a difference." It can be a lonely commitment, as John F. Kennedy wrote in his 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning ''Profiles in Courage": ''In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices . . . each man must decide for himself the course he will follow."

The course followed by Viktor Yushchenko, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, and other courageous modern political leaders carries hope for democracy. In Ukraine, South Africa, and the Czech Republic but also in Georgia, Kyrgystan, Lebanon, and all the places where popular movements for freedom are led by people of courage and conviction, democracy can take hold, not imposed from the outside through the barrel of a gun, but engendered from the inside through decisions of the people about which course to follow.

John Shattuck is CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. He served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor and ambassador to the Czech Republic in the Clinton administration and is the author of ''Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response."

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