Autocrats can be defeated by the will of the people

Working politicians, as opposed to theorists or political scientists - are fascinated by the process of change. There are broad issues, such as how does any structure of administration function in a revolutionary situation, or a specific issue, such as at what point does a central bank accept instructions from a military dictator to print bank notes. When I was heading up the UN's team dealing with the transition to multiparty democracy in Malawi in 1994, I pondered what should be done if Hastings Banda either could not or would not accept the elections results. I decided that I would recommend that the Speaker of the previous, single party, parliament be called on to summon the newly elected MPs and thus effect the transfer of power over Banda's head. To my relief Banda accepted the results and emergency action was not required. It was, however, known that the armed forces were unwilling to sustain the old regime in the face of clearly adverse election results.

For us in Europe it usually it is the nuances of a "weasel" word chosen in a speech or a statement, or the omission of a word, that indicates what is actually going on in Westminster, but occasionally we are witnesses to an extraordinary piece of politics. It happened on our television screens when, following Gorbachev's refusal to bale out what he knew were unsupportable regimes, the Berlin wall fell before our eyes. It happened in the central square in Bucharest when the crowd - spontaneously as people who were there told me - rose up to overthrow Ceaucescu. It happened in the centre of Jakarta when the security forces fired on the huge crowd and killed four students - an action which brought down the Suharto regime. It happened in Manila when the Philippines' electorate believed the tabulation of votes by the independent monitoring organisation, rather than the official results, and took to the streets to get rid of Marcos. The people themselves are best able to deal with their own tyrants - eventually.

It is happening today in Ukraine. Day by day on the streets of Kiev a new political order is being forged in this huge country. There are many factors required in the building of a critical mass to prise power from the hands of an authoritarian regime. For it to happen without considerable bloodshed there has to be the absence of significant and biddable armed force - internal as in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, or external, as in the case of Czechoslovakia in 1968 - capable of crushing revolt at any price. Where a disputed election is the fulcrum of change, there has to be the recognition, explicit on the part of the "opposition" and tacit on the part of the regime, that the ostensible polling figures are unsustainable under scrutiny. It is important, though not always crucial, to have a relevant court sufficiently independent to examine the polling evidence impartially.

Above all success requires shrewd and competent leadership. The opposition presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, has provided this brilliantly. The careful escalation of the street protest and the stoic resilience of the crowd has been remarkable. I wondered initially whether the extreme cold would play into the hands of the regime, but, in the end, the determination of the people in such conditions was a telling factor, as was its tactical sense in following Yushchenko's calls to move to the parliament building or to the front of the Supreme Court, and, remarkably, to allow civil servants to reach their offices when it served his purpose to pull back.

In all these uprisings there comes a moment when the balance moves in favour of the street. In Kiev it came when individual soldiers began to come to the podium emotionally to declare their support for Yushchenko. The numbers were not significant - it was the symbolism, and it was followed by the state media switching sides and then very mixed signals from the Ukraine parliament, all of which put Yushchenko in the driving seat and enabled him to negotiate the vital changes in the electoral law. Now, just in case there have not been enough twists to the Ukraine election saga, we have evidence that Yushchenko was poisoned!

What of the other dramatis personae in this saga? Russian President Vladimir Putin foolishly committed himself to Yushchenko's opponent and to the original election result. Since then he has had to row back at a speed Matthew Pinsent would be envious of. I would be very surprised if the Ukraine government had succumbed to a fresh election without a signal from Putin that he accepted its inevitability.

What happens next? First, Yushchenko wins the presidency with a substantial majority on December 26, and then his real problems begin. He has a massive task ahead to keep Ukraine together. The Russia leaning citizens of eastern Ukraine are not going to be seduced by western European attitudes overnight. They are nervous of big changes and will need careful reassurance. This is the final end of the Kuchma regime - more than decade after most of the rest of the Soviet Union - and both Russia and Europe must learn the lessons of the intervening years. Ukraine is a big country of some 50 million people and its geographic position makes it strategically important. Its currency needs to be underpinned and its structural economic changes assisted. If West Germany could pay the reunification price of East German pride then Europe can do the same for Ukraine if it wishes to maintain its unity and to entrench its democracy.

The remarkable real life soap opera of the past ten days has kept us addicts rivetted to the news bulletins. The pre-election campaign is over, the post-election challenge awaits the Viktor.

12 December 2004