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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.

By Laryssa Chomiak / January 18, 2010

Kiev, Ukraine

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.

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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.

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.