November 20, 2006

November 20, 2006 | Commentary on Russia

Ukraine: A Revolution Recedes

Just two years after Ukraine's Orange Revolution inspired the world's democratic imagination, the movement has all but collapsed - and many of the antidemocratic politicos swept away by "people power" are making a strong comeback.

Hopes of Kiev's rapid integration with the West via NATO and the European Union are fading fast in the wake of a pro-Russian power shift. But, despite this, Ukraine has fundamentally changed for the better - perhaps irreversibly.

Two years ago this week, crowds of 500,000 or more - many draped in the orange of pro-West Viktor Yushenko's Our Ukraine party - started gathering in Kiev's Independence Square to protest widespread voter fraud by pro-Kremlin presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich. The Orange Revolution's peaceful civil disobedience led not only to the election's invalidation by Ukraine's Supreme Court, but to Yushenko's election as president in a December runoff.

But, two years on, Yushenko is faltering - badly. Economic growth tops 6 percent, but he hasn't provided decisive political leadership, advanced integration with the West or implemented a domestic-reform agenda beyond slogans. His approval ratings hover around 10 percent.

Even such former Orange allies as nationalist firebrand Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the BYuT party, are going their own way, sometimes even into the opposition in the Rada (Ukraine's parliament).

Yanukovich's Regions Party pounced. It soared in March's parliamentary elections, allowing President Yushenko's former foe, Yanukovich, to take the powerful prime minister's post in a bitter political power-sharing deal between Our Ukraine, Regions Party, the Socialists and the Communists.

Many believe that PM Yanukovich already overshadows President Yushenko and plans to seize political power from the weakened president by picking off his diminishing allies, filling the vacuum with the like-minded from the Rada's five scattered political factions.

Just last week, in a constitutionally questionable power play, Yanukovich called Yushenko's handpicked appointees serving as foreign and defense ministers on the carpet, questioning their job performance, and openly considering sacking them in the coming weeks.

Yanukovich has made ties with Russia a priority. That's always been his program; Russia is Ukraine's largest trading partner, after all, and its main supplier of natural gas and nuclear-reactor fuel. (Last January, Russia cut off the gas - a strong signal that helped weaken the stumbling Yushenko.)

The prime minister also hails from eastern Ukraine, where ties to next-door Russia are historically strong. Many native Russians settled there during the Soviet-era, and Russian - not Ukrainian - is the lingua franca.

If horse-trading in the Rada lets Yanukovich snatch the reins of political authority from Yushenko, future Euro-Atlantic integration by Kiev goes off the agenda. Yanukovich won't likely be a total Russian toady but will aim for a course that sees Kiev generously courted by both East and West.

All this will disappoint many - especially pro-West Ukrainian-Americans and neighbors such as Poland that want Russian influence/power as distant as possible. But the Orange Revolution's legacy still stands.

For instance, Freedom House now rates Ukraine's political system as "free" - the first former Soviet state beyond the Baltics to achieve that status. The March elections were considered to be Ukraine's freest yet.

The media have also taken a marked turn since the Orange Revolution. The press still isn't completely free, but the quality/depth of reporting has improved after years of essentially Soviet-era "what the authorities want us to say" news. Some outlets may still exercise self-censorship out of fear of governmental retribution, but press freedom in Ukraine looks pretty darn good compared to the situation in neighboring Russia and Belarus.

Moreover, politics have caught fire with the public. Foreign spin doctors - usually Americans - fly in to advise candidates on running campaigns. (Indeed, some pro-Orange locals complain bitterly that U.S. political consultants helped Yanukovich come back from the political dead .)

There are frank TV debates and strong newspaper op-eds; major politicians inspire near cult-like followings such as that of the ever-more-popular Tymoshenko, famous for her plaited blonde locks. Most agree that democratic institutions are firmly entrenched here for the foreseeable future.

So - though Yushenko has been a disappointment to many over the last two years and the glory of the history-changing Pomeranchevi (the Oranges) has faded - the Orange Revolution's spirit lives on here.

Even though many Ukrainians are rightly concerned by recent political developments, most would concede that the Orange Revolution has established the floor - not the ceiling - for political freedom and democratic institutions in Ukraine.

Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Russia

First appeared in The New York Post