The Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Charles Wise, the daily sparring of Ukrainian political leaders bears a certain resemblance to things here at home.
From an office in one of America's most hotly contested presidential battleground states, Wise oversees a U.S. government-supported initiative to foster democracy in Ukraine. He has grown accustomed to struggles for control in both places.
"If you're happy in Ohio, you'll be happy in Kiev," Wise said.
Of course, Wise is keenly aware that fighting to lead a democracy — as American Democrats and Republicans do every election season — is a far cry from fighting to keep one alive.
Ukraine's democracy, begun after it shook free of Russian control in 1991, is viewed as a rare success story in the volatile region.
The program Wise oversees, the Parliamentary Development Project, began work there in 1994. Funded by the U.S. Agency on International Development, it is considered the longest-running sustained effort to promote democracy in the world.
Management of the effort migrated to Ohio along with Wise, who came to Columbus last year to direct the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. Last month, the school signed a $4 million, three-year subcontract to operate the program — formally centered at Indiana University.
During the U.S. presidential debate on Oct. 7, Republican nominee John McCain described Ukraine as "in the sights of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin," a notion more ominous given Russia's August war with neighboring Georgia.
A fierce battle for political control is playing out there. Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko dissolved the Parliament that Wise's program has helped guide — known as the Verkhovna Rada. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has challenged the move in court, hoping to retain power for a pro-western coalition.
The two were former partners in the Orange Revolution, during which Ukraine broke free of Russia. They are now estranged and expected to be rivals for president in 2010 of the nation of 46 million.
In a recent video teleconference with the democracy project's 16-member Kiev staff, Wise heard cautious optimism from employees there. Ukraine Program Director Ellie Valentine said business is more or less continuing as usual.
Out of its Kiev office, the project organizes seminars with representatives of other democracies for members of the Parliament and their staffs, answers questions, and summons resources when needed.
"Essentially, it's advice, guidance, information about all the nuts and bolts about running a democratic parliament — from the legislative process to committee organization, the budget process, relations with the media, citizen transparency — because to this point they've had no experience operating in that kind of environment," said Trevor Brown, associate project executive.
Brown said the initiative got its start during a tour of Washington, D.C., that Wise was giving to a group of members of Ukraine's first Parliament in the early 1990s. As he spoke, the then-speaker wondered whether the budding democracy might develop a formal, ongoing relationship with American experts.
Wise has been the program's chief executive since its inception, traveling to Ukraine several times a year. He said the program is nonpartisan and steers clear of political wrangling. He described the back-and-forth between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko over the status of the Parliament and the country's upcoming elections as equivalent to President Bush and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi going at it over the Wall Street bailout.
"The point of our project is to help them put processes in place so that negotiation and arrangements on specific policies can go on regardless of the turmoil that's happening at the top," Wise said. "During the past three months, while all this political turmoil has been going on, the Parliament has actually passed some very significant legislation."
He said the democracy project has made significant contributions over the years. "We were there and held a workshop for them when they were considering, drafting and debating their Constitution," he said. "We've been there as they established basic processes in the Parliament, like the process of holding committee hearings and taking public input. They had never done that before."
From studying democracies around the world, Wise has learned that there are many ways to run one well. He has also gained a new appreciation for how far America has come in 200 years. "After 10 years, the (U.S.) Articles of Confederation weren't working that well either," he said.
He said Americans need to remind themselves of what they want from their democracy and the different roles the branches of government play.
"After the break up of the Soviet Union, all these countries like Ukraine had to set up a market system from scratch. They also had to set up a regulatory system to monitor things like the stock market," he said. "In our current financial crisis, maybe we forgot how important some of those things are. The fact is, in a representative democracy, the legislative branch plays a very important role in making sure those institutions are established and are working."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.