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IRI honors Ukraine protest movement with its 2014 'Freedom Award'
Diplomatic Pouch / September 19, 2014

By Larry Luxner

A Ukrainian pop star, a veteran lawmaker from Arizona, a former president and a deceased U.S. diplomat were praised for their contributions to democracy and human rights during a Sept. 9 dinner to raise money for the International Republican Institute.

The IRI, a nonprofit group that seeks to “advance freedom and democracy worldwide by helping political parties to become more issue-based and responsive,” kicked off the $1,000-a-plate evening with a tribute to Ambassador Richard S. Williamson, a longtime member of IRI’s board of directors who served as its vice-chairman from 2011 until his death last year from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 64.

Williamson had served the George W. Bush administration as ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs and was special envoy to Sudan, where he played a role in resolving the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.

“Rich was one of those incredible people who had diplomatic skills and was very determined in everything he did, and had his feet on the ground,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a video tribute. “He was dedicated to the work he had done for the people of Sudan. It isn’t easy to make new friends at a certain age when Rich and I met. It’s even harder to lose them. I miss Rich an awful lot. He was a great friend and deserves to be honored. He was smart, determined and not full of himself.”

Added Sen. John McCain, chairman of IRI since 1993: “Rich was a good friend to many people in this room. He was also an inspiration to thousands of people who had no kinship with him — whether they were Ethiopian refugees or abuse victims in Sierra Leone, or the suffering multitudes in Darfur. Rich was their champion. He believed all human lives had value and were endowed by their creator with inalienable rights.”

The evening was emceed by Stephen F. Hayes, conservative columnist for The Weekly Standard, and also featured remarks by IRI President Mark Green, a former congressman from Wisconsin who served as U.S. ambassador to Tanzania from 2007 to 2009.

“Thirty-plus years ago, when Ronald Reagan gave a speech to the British parliament that launched NED [National Endowment for Democracy], IRI and other organizations, he warned us that our work would be difficult,” Green said. “As we look around at backsliding democracies, authoritarian challenges to human dignity and efforts to shut down opposing voices, we understand what he meant. But that speech in London was also profoundly optimistic, because he knew that the voices of freedom must one day prevail. No, we have not inherited an easy world, but of course that’s why we are here.”

More than 300 people attended the event at Washington’s Mayflower Renaissance Hotel, including Kenneth D. Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, IRI’s nonprofit counterpart on the other side of the aisle. Also invited were two dozen ambassadors representing countries ranging from Afghanistan to Uganda.

But the star of the evening was clearly McCain, who blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea as well as his “imperial ambitions” against the people of Ukraine.

“What started as peaceful protests against [the since-deposed Ukrainian president] Viktor Yanukovych and his broken promises of reform was soon met with deadly violence from the regime,” McCain told his audience. “But Ukraine did not back down. Instead, the protests grew. When I visited them in December, I was inspired by their just cause. During the day, as many as a million people gathered in the Maidan. Thousands interrupted us with cheers of ‘Thank you, USA!’ It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.”

McCain, who’s made 26 speeches on the Senate floor backing the Maidan protesters and has introduced numerous bills in support of support their cause, warned that “what is happening in Ukraine is about far more than Ukraine. It’s about the principles of international order that have brought peace to Europe since 1945, and whether a world based on these principles will endure or not.”

The one-time North Vietnam POW added: “If we cannot say clearly that what Putin is doing to Ukraine constitutes an invasion, then we’re living in Putin’s world. He will continue to take more and more of Ukraine until he faces consequences he is unwilling to incur. Sadly, we have not reached that point. And if Putin can invade a sovereign country for no other reason than greed, what is to stop others from doing so? Putin’s desires to restore imperialist dominance poses a geopolitical challenge not only to Russia’s neighbors, but to our entire vision of Europe, whole, free and at peace.”

Even so, he concluded, “no matter how much money and resources Putin commits to sowing chaos, he cannot change the fact that the majority of Ukrainians see their future in Europe, and want everything Europe has to offer.”

With that in mind, McCain presented IRI’s 2014 Freedom Award to pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko, who he said “stood with protestors, traveled to Donetsk, won the freedom of prisoners and truly embodies the spirit of the Ukrainian people.”

In accepting the award, Ruslana — who generally goes by only her first name — heaped praise on the Republican from Arizona.

“Thank you, Mr. McCain. I remember your first visit to Maidan. You gave us power in that moment. I’ll never forget it,” said Ruslana, winner of the 2004 Eurovision song contest. “Why Putin wants to kill Ukrainians? Because we chose democracy, because we told him no. Of course I’m worried about Russian soldiers in my country. There’s no reason for them to be in Ukraine. I ask America to help us, because we really need it. I repeat again and again, we will do everything to save Ukraine.”

The Republican love-fest was largely free of partisan digs at President Obama, given that its main enemy of the evening was Vladimir, not Barack. Yet Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), couldn’t resist taking a swing at the current occupant of the White House, who defeated McCain in the 2008 presidential elections.

“I so value Sen. McCain’s leadership, not only in the Senate but also for standing up for freedom around the world,” she gushed, noting the Russian president’s sanctioning of McCain last March for his outspoken support of pro-democracy supporters in Kiev. “I can’t help but think that Vladimir Putin’s calculations would have been quite different had we had President John McCain.”

Ayotte then presented McCain with the Order of the Defense of the Euromaidan on behalf of Vitalii Yarema, general prosecutor of Ukraine.

“There has been no stronger leader for Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression and in its right to choose its own future than Sen. McCain,” said Ayotte. “He has been a leading voice in urging our government to offer more support to the Ukrainian people, and I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition.”

The evening ended with a tribute to George H.W. Bush, as well as speeches by former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft as well as Sam LeBlond, grandson of the 41st president.

“I think one can argue that no president has been better prepared for the office than was George Bush,” the retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant-general said of his 90-year-old friend, reciting a litany of accomplishments during the Bush administration.

Scowcroft, 89, noted that it was “an honor and a delight” to serve the former Texas congressman, who eventually became U.S. ambassador to China and director of the CIA. “As president, he also raised taxes, which allowed us to have a balanced budget, but it cost him dearly, politically. ‘Read my lips’ was not the right statement to make.”

Finally, LeBlond, 29, read a letter from the elder Bush thanking IRI for the 2014 Freedom Award, and then added his own observation: “My grandfather is truly the master of the small gesture, a handwritten note of encouragement or a phone call to life someone who’s down. These are the things that matter most, and the thing I’m most proud of. There is no one more honored today than my grandfather.”

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