Ukrainian Democracy: A Fait Accompli?

The victors of the Orange Revolution have been trumped by their own designs

Supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko in Kiev, Feb. 2010 | Photo EPA/ANP

This year’s Ukrainian presidential elections could go down as a milestone in the history of democracy in former Soviet Union. What is apparent even now is the paradigm shift that has taken place in Ukrainian politics. The heroes of the 2005 Orange Revolution – former president Viktor Yushchenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko – have been voted out and reproached for their failures. Moreover, the great villain of the revolution, Viktor Yanukovych – ex-criminal, ex-communist and pro-Russia – has made a triumphant rise to the presidency. Tymoshenko contested the election results, but the outcome is clear: Ukraine’s political future is in the hands of Yanukovych, and the Orange revolutionaries are out in the cold. The importance of these elections for both Ukraine and Eastern democracy is hard to underestimate.

It is an interesting turn of events. The Orange Revolution – a massive series of protests in 2004-2005 that contested the 2004 presidential elections – resulted in the Russian-backed Yanukovych being exposed as falsifying the voting, and ultimately conceding to Yushchenko, who at the time was being deified as the patron of reform, civil rights and freedom in Ukraine. His victory over Yanukovych was symbolic: considered little more than a thug of the Soviet old guard, Yanukovych’s defeat at the hands of the democrat Yushchenko – and the hands of the people – heralded a new era.

But five years later, the tables have drastically turned. During the first round of elections, Yanukovych received the highest percentage of the vote – 35 percent – with the nearest challenger, Prime Minister Tymoshenko, getting 25 percent. During, the second round, Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko 48.7 to 45.5 percent.

Tymoshenko contested the results of the election, suggesting foul play. This was due in part to legitimate concerns of corruption, considering Yanukovych’s fraudulent conduct in 2004. But moreover, it seems to be a sign that the Orange revolutionaries deeply resist being voted out by the very democratic process they championed, especially in favor of someone like Yanukovych.

So what happened? The 2004 elections were widely viewed as post-Soviet Ukraine’s first truly democratic election. Expectations were predictably high, but from his first day in office, Yushchenko’s presidency was fraught with complications. His government seemed to lack direction; after dismissing many Orange revolutionaries, Yushchenko dissolved parliament twice, possessing a paranoiac suspicion regarding enemies of democracy. But the new, ultra-democratic government was not getting anything done.

Perhaps there is some truth to Yushchenko’s suspicion, as there is plenty of evidence of ministers and MPs retaining loyalty to Moscow and deliberately undermining Yushchenko in favor of Russian policy goals. But having the deck stacked against him did not absolve Yushchenko nor Tymoshenko in the public’s eyes.

The issues so close to Ukrainian’s hearts were not addressed as a consequence of this political squabbling. Fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, they were still unable to privatize large swaths of land; Soviet-era subsidies still existed in the budget; Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, dropped in value by 50 percent; and social tensions between the west and east of the country remained unchanged. By 2008 Yushchenko’s popularity, according to a BBC poll,was below 10 percent.

This disappointment was expressed at the ballot box. The leaders of the Orange Revolution, the great democratizing movement, had been voted out of office. What does this mean for Ukraine? Many fear that Yanukovych’s close relationship with the pseudo-democratic regime in Moscow will result in similar developments in Kiev. The trepidation about Yanukovych’s victory is that it is a defeat for democracy.

But is it? While there is great irony to be found in the Orange democrats being ousted by the democratic process they fostered, the defeat of Tymoshenko does not mean an end to the democratic system. Many ask if democracy can exist without unbreakable bonds to Europe and America. But Yanukovych’s election may be the most durable proof of the intransigence of Ukrainian democracy.

For 20 years there has been an ardent, ongoing process of democratic institution building, and many analysts believe that democratic practices have become thoroughly embedded in Ukrainian political culture. In sharp contrast to other post-Soviet states, there has thus far been no rollback of civil liberties, and the democratic establishment that exists now makes any future attempts increasingly difficult. So what, then, about Yanukovych?

Skeptics are waiting to see if he will live up to the democratic system or if he will attempt Putin-style “reforms” aimed at trumping democracy and securing power. Although it is somewhat likely that Yanukovych will move Ukraine closer to Russia, a wholesale abandonment of current Western alliances, particularly with Europe, are improbable. While any chance of Ukraine joining NATO is now gone, Yanukovych is an open supporter of Ukraine joining the EU, and most of the elite he brings with him to government still aspire to see their country as a part of Europe. While tensions with their massive eastern neighbor are sure to be eased, Ukraine’s connection to Europe will remain strong.

Will Ukraine become more “Eastern”? What effects with the Yanukovych ascension have on the country’s political culture? How will it caveat European and trans-Atlantic relations? Whatever answers are likely to unfold in the coming months, one thing is clear, Ukrainian democracy is alive and thriving.

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