Opinion

Elections in Ukraine signal important turn on the road to democracy

Yanukovich, who sparked the Orange Revolution by allegedly rigging the 2004 elections, is leading the polls, but the US can still support the nascent democracy there.

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Six years ago, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians camped out in the bitter cold to defend the integrity of democracy. Yesterday, a far more subdued group of voters showed up to vote in Ukraine’s presidential election.

Based on the latest data opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich carried 36 percent of the vote, while Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko won 25 percent. Incumbent President Yuschenko won between just 6 and 10 percent. This means former Moscow-backed Mr. Yankovych and Ms. Tymoshenko will go head to head in a run-off on Feb. 7.

Voters’ malaise was evident when I visited back in November. Gigantic election posters lining the highway into Kiev from the airport provoked a conversation about the election with my cab driver. “They’re all the same, the Orange Revolution is dead, so what’s the point of voting?” he said, dismissing the 18 candidates as we sped by campaign posters of the two front-runners.

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Popular discontent with the 2004 Orange Revolution leadership that mobilized millions to protest in hopes of democratic reforms is endemic among Ukrainians. But this does not mean that the election is irrelevant or that Yanukovich’s triumph in the first round of elections will reverse the country’s democratic potential. Rather, it signals an important turn on Ukraine’s bumpy road to democracy.

Ukraine controls a major gas pipeline system at a time when energy resources in neighboring Europe and Moscow are under strain. Influential Moscow is also eyeing pipeline deals with Kiev. Despite a host of setbacks, young, politically motivated Ukrainians have worked hard in the past five years to form a vibrant civil society. It is in the West’s best interest to support such movement.

Ukraine has not had it easy. Public euphoria in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution dwindled quickly as the democratic momentum gave way to old-school post-Soviet infighting among political elites.

The leaders of the Orange coalition – Yushchenko and the charismatic, populist Tymoshenko – became tangled in personal spats and disagreements over proposed domestic policy that resulted in a number of political stand-offs.

To complicate matters, these domestic rows took place in the shadow of great-power politicking. Europe and the US pushed aggressively to consolidate democracy and speed free-market reforms while Russian adopted hard-line policies to keep Ukraine under its sphere of influence.

After failed NATO membership talks; a gas-dispute with Russia that caused a nation-wide shut-down last year; fear of military confrontation with Russia following the 2008 Russia-Georgia war over South Ossetia; a debilitating financial crisis, rampant corruption; and most recently a threatening swine-flu epidemic; it is with little surprise that Yushchenko sported single digit approval ratings throughout his last year in office.

Ukraine is nonetheless fighting its way to democracy.

Indeed, the political landscape looks a lot more complicated today than in 2004, when Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymochenko enjoyed overwhelming support from the country’s nationalist regions in the West and Yanukovich’s support base came primarily from the East.

Yet yesterday’s election was no longer about an East-West, or Russian- versus Ukrainian-speaking, or pro-EU/pro-Russia divide that has defined Ukrainian politics in the past. Mykola Riabchuk, a Ukrainian political analyst, credits the Orange Revolution with introducing a centrist political niche to Ukrainian politics, one that is best represented by the politics of Tymoshenko.

Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko have been cunning in their maneuvering of the East-West divide. Both are from the country’s Eastern regions and are supported by powerful oligarchs.

Yanukovich enjoys the backing of Donetsk-native Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s wealthiest man. Tymoshenko, once a natural gas trading tycoon, was known as Ukraine’s “gas princess.” Her economic acumen has been challenged by both her simultaneous courtship of Western investors and the Medvedev/Putin camp in Moscow over gas-prices. And her opaque plans for economic reforms have raised public suspicion and resulted in the suspension of a $2 billion emergency IMF loan. Yanukovich has likewise played his electorate by juggling both Russia and the West, albeit to greater popular success.

Last week he announced that he would not seek NATO membership, a sticky issue that has angered Russia and received little support among Ukrainian voters. The Obama administration’s reassessment of the US missile defense program means that Ukrainian membership in NATO is also less salient to Western political elites.

Whoever takes on the presidency has a daunting task ahead. The country has been hit hard by the global financial crisis. Domestically, the president will have to pursue radical reforms to charm a disgruntled electorate.

On foreign policy, the new president will have to tactfully balance EU/US interests with those of Russia. Russia’s intentions are best summarized in Mr. Putin’s remarks at last year’s NATO summit meeting, “Ukraine is not a country but part Eastern Europe, part Russian lands.”

The explosion of new grass-roots organizations, from media watch groups and e-civic initiatives to rock-the-vote campaigns, promises at least some elements of a democratic society.

No matter who wins the runoff election, US and EU policy should vigorously support indigenous initiatives that represent the most promising agents of democracy in Ukraine. Such support will help Ukraine overcome the increasingly obsolete East-West zero-sum game. Should Ukraine’s new president manage to bridge the East-West divide, reconnect with the Ukrainian electorate, and delicately navigate foreign interests, the international community will witness the development of a new and powerful democratic model.

Laryssa Chomiak is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland.

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