ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright is leading a team of international observers who'll be watching Sunday's Ukrainian election. She's part of the National Democratic Institutes observer mission, and their partners include a big Ukrainian nonpartisan monitoring group and a European group. So, there will actually be hundreds of observers around the country. Secretary Albright, welcome to the program.
MADELINE ALBRIGHT: Delighted to be with you. Thanks for asking me.
SIEGEL: There are some boycotts of this election. There are cities in eastern Ukraine where separatists control the buildings where the polling places should be. We just heard that there may not be any polling locations open in Donetsk. Given all that, is a free and fair election in Ukraine even possible?
ALBRIGHT: I definitely think so, and I obviously know why there is so much interest in what is going on in Donetsk and Luhansk. But it is a very small part of the population - probably around 8 percent - and there are no polling observers out there in various aspects. But I think the main story is that there are a lot of people getting ready to vote here and really doing what they're supposed to be doing, which is electing a new president and participating.
SIEGEL: But in most countries we wouldn't consider missing 8 percent of the electorate to be a sign of a fair election. If that had happened in Florida in 2000, you know, this thing would never had been counted.
ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that the percentages are really difficult and one can't compare anything that's happening in Ukraine to Florida. But I have been very impressed by the determination of most of Ukraine of really wanting to get out there and participate in this. What I think is unfortunate is that the people in Donetsk and Luhansk are being prevented from carrying out their privilege of being able to vote. It's obviously very important, but I do think that the main story here is the number of people that will vote.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about something that Russian President Putin said this morning in St. Petersburg. And I'm asking you in your role as former secretary of state. He was talking of NATO's eastward expansion having been problematic and of Russia's concerns always being ignored. And he said that U.S. military assistance from Ukraine is no different from Ukraine being in NATO. My question for you is: was the U.S. unrealistic in not acknowledging some continuing historic Russian interest in Ukraine - not domination of the country but some special relationship that would make Ukraine different?
ALBRIGHT: I am very glad you asked this because the bottom line in all of this, I think, has been a complete misunderstanding in terms of what we - 'cause I was in the Clinton administration and President Bush before that - were trying to do, which was to bring Russia into a system in which they would be fully respected and partners in a Europe that was whole and free. And I don't think that there has been a lack of reality check on the side of the Western countries. I think there may be a lack of reality check in terms of what Putin is saying. He has made up his own history. And I think that we have always recognized Ukraine's geographical position but we also have recognized that countries and populations and citizens have a right to make a decision about how their country is going to be run. They want to be part of Europe but it's not a zero-sum game. It doesn't mean that they can't have a positive relationship with Russia.
SIEGEL: And are these elections, as best you can tell, part and parcel of some broader trend toward normalization of Ukraine. Or when you put it together with the tensions in the east and what's being broadcast on competing television stations, is this election the outlying experience?
ALBRIGHT: Now, I think it is the right direction. I mean, I have to tell you something - I just came from Poland, which is a country that is celebrating many anniversaries this year, a country that made the choice to be part of Europe and to have a population that is able to make decisions about its well-being. And this election in Ukraine is one in which the people are basically given the opportunity to make decisions about their lives. What I think we need to focus on, though, in terms of looking at all the problems with the Russians, the bottom line here is this country has an awful lot of work to do. They do have a lot of economic problems with the kinds of governments that they've had. I really think that, in so many ways, the Ukrainian people have been let down by their leaders. And I think that they understand that they have a long road ahead of them, and these elections are a way to get on a track that allows them to do that.
SIEGEL: Secretary Albright, thanks a lot for talking with us once again.
ALBRIGHT: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: That's former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who is in Kiev. She's leading the National Democratic Institutes for Sunday's Ukrainian election. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.