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Don't give up on Ukraine's Orange Revolution

By Matthew Spence / November 30, 2006



SAN FRANCISCO

Two years ago, Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" gave fresh hope to democrats around the world. As infant democracy faltered in Iraq, and as it came under assault in Russia, Ukraine – on the fault line between the European Union (EU) and the former Soviet Union – became the Rorschach test for whether freedom was indeed on the march again.

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But since then, there have been difficult days for democracy in Ukraine.

In August, Viktor Yanukovich – the grinch who nearly stole the presidential elections two years ago – became prime minister. A month later, Mr. Yanukovich suggested that Ukraine, which seemed poised for greater Western integration, is not ready to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the World Trade Organization anytime soon. From these setbacks, a new conventional wisdom has emerged: Ukraine's Orange Revolution is dead, and the prospects for democratic reforms have dimmed. Now, some say, the best the West can do is to simply sit by and watch what happens.

That could not be more wrong. Democ- racy is not built in a single election or revo- lution, but in the slow and steady work that follows. Now is not the time to declare defeat in Ukraine, but rather for Western patience and engagement to keep the spirit of the Orange Revolution alive.

To be sure, the difficult reality of governing has set in, and Ukraine fatigue has arrived in the West. In July, the EU said Ukraine was in a "sorry state." Yanukovich, whose power base lies in Russian-leaning eastern Ukraine, favors tighter economic integration with increasingly authoritarian Russia and slowing Ukraine's pace toward membership in NATO. Indeed, his top priority is improving Ukraine's relations with Russia. And his rocky visit to Brussels in September proved to critics that his opposition to NATO has not changed.

But to read Ukraine's recent domestic drama as evidence of the death of reform would be to view Ukraine through the familiar – though badly misguided – storybook lens of democratization. Pundits and policymakers too often see democracy cast as a melodrama between the forces of the good reformers and the evil autocrats. When the "reformers" are in, democracy looks good. But when the reformers are losing, democracy has sunk. Or, in between, when a government has a coalition of politicians pushing Western integration and those who favor another approach – as in Ukraine – the conventional wisdom concludes that the state is simply out of control.

The reality of governing, of course, is not that simple. America's own experience shows that divided government and partisan warfare, even the most vitriolic type, is a sign that democracy is working. Likewise, Ukraine's stormy periods of building a governing coalition – and seeing that majority fall apart – show that the messy work of democracy is alive and well there.

Ukraine's popular revolution on the streets of Kiev in the fall of 2004 helped ensure that democratic processes stayed on track, but it risked the danger that politics might be played outside the Constitution. That two bitter rivals – President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovich – are contending for clout within government rather than outside it, or fighting the system itself, is a good sign.

While courageous democrats and Mr. Yushchenko's team have led Ukraine through crisis and deserve Western support, Ukraine's path toward a thriving democracy does not end with them.

Importantly, Ukraine has not abandoned Yuschenko's policies of Western integration and economic development. To be sure, divisions remain between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovich. But Yanukovich made clear in Brussels that he fully supported Ukrainian membership in the European Union. Though Yanukovich opposes NATO membership, Yushchenko maintains constitutional authority over foreign relations – and he is promoting that agenda. And while the public is divided by the NATO issue, the Ukrainian press attacked Yanukovich for his unexpected comments in Brussels that Ukraine should not move toward NATO.

The West can assist those in Ukraine who are pushing for greater Western integration by keeping real the prospect of joining NATO and the EU, and promoting foreign investment to boost Ukraine's economy. This is the message that the Bush administration must repeat to Yanukovich in his visit to Washington next week: NATO will welcome Ukraine, if it continues with the difficult work of democratic reforms. It is the process of democratic reforms, not the personalities of Ukrainian domestic politics, that Ameri- ca will be watching.

Elections, revolutions, and summits are the stuff of headlines. But building democracy is born of patience. And it is that patience the West must show now.

Matthew Spence is a San Francisco attorney and was a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He is writing a book about US efforts to promote democracy in Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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