He was one of the leaders of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, and - by his own account - the first to "pitch a tent" in Kiev's central square in 2000 in opposition to the Soviet-era government.
But now as a system insider, Ukraine Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko is discovering firsthand the hard work of building a new democracy. In Washington recently to advance US-Ukraine cooperation on justice and international crime, the youthful Mr. Lutsenko says he's learned that creating a clean and fair national police force is one of the most important determinants in a young democracy's success.
And stepping back to view the press for glasnost in the Middle East, the appointee of Ukraine President Viktor Yuschenko has some sobering words for the Bush administration's democratization enthusiasts.
"I would not like to be the adviser to the US foreign policy on the Middle East," he says, "for one thing because I have enough to be preoccupied with in Ukraine." But he says any country must have the "spark" inside if freedom's fire is to catch and not burn out.
"The support from outside is important - we learned that in the cold days in the Maidan [Kiev's central square] in the revolution," Lutsenko says. "But to get nine people [out of 10] to join in democracy's success, you must first have the one of their own so they know they are not alone."
Ukraine's democratization, which became the focus of much of the world in late 2004 with the eventually successful election of the pro-democracy (and West-favored) Mr. Yuschenko, will command international attention again with its March 26 parliamentary elections.
Observers say the polls, which will pit Yuschenko's pro-reform, pro-Western forces against the establishment and Moscow-favoring forces of former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, will help determine whether Ukraine remains on its pro-West path.
The year following Yuschenko's successful campaign - in which he was poisoned nearly to death, allegedly by pro-old-line forces - has been a rocky one for Ukraine and its democratization. In September the prime minister and key figure in the Orange Revolution, Yuliya Tymoshenko, was dismissed. Winter saw the battle with Russia over natural gas prices, and early this year the parliament gave the new prime minister a vote of no confidence, essentially sacking the government and prompting the March elections.
In a new report, Freedom House says the rough year has left Ukrainians ambiguous about democratization and disappointed in their new leadership. And although the pro-democracy organization now lists Ukraine as "free" in its annual survey of world freedom - it previously listed the former Soviet satellite as "partly free" - it also sounds alarms over the public's drift over the past year.
A recent survey of Ukrainians commissioned by Freedom House finds a high degree of pessimism about the country's politicians, with 2 of 3 saying the country is headed in the wrong direction, and little interest in or knowledge of new laws that will govern the March elections.
"Recent events in Ukraine confirm that the transition to a more democratic society is extremely difficult and that the campaign for the parliamentary elections will be highly charged and competitive," saidFreedom House executive director Jennifer Windsor in a commentary on the survey. The poll's findings, she added, "underscore the importance of further engaging citizens and ensuring they understand and remain committed to the ongoing democratization process."
The sunny Lutsenko, who earned a reputation as an optimistic jokester during the frigid 2004 pro-democracy vigil, says he understands if there is fatigue with political tumult. "To be frank, we are tired of passing new exams every year," he says, referring to repeated elections.
But he agrees that the public must be engaged, and says the best way he can help to encourage that as interior minister is by reforming the national police. "People are feeling more like they are safe at home and on the street, but they also feel they can... come to us and report problems or suggest things, so that means there is more trust."
Ukraine's first civilian interior minister, Lutsenko rattles off statistics to demonstrate how crime is down over the last year - and to underscore his drive to rid the national police of corruption. He has fired 2,500 police, while 1,200 ministry officials are facing criminal charges - ranging from bribery to fraud and kidnapping. The state has been losing billions of dollars a year to corruption, he says.
"I think we are succeeding in building a new image for the national police," he says. Yet a concern for image does not prompt him to shy away when asked about human trafficking, an issue that rates high with US officials and rights groups dealing with Ukraine. "We know there have been and are a great number of Ukrainian women and even children sold into sexual slavery," Lutsenko says.
But recent revelations of a case where police officers joined with criminal organizations to sell children from small border towns is prompting Ukrainians to act on the issue, as is a new ministry office focused on human trafficking, created last year at the US ambassador's recommendation.
Lutsenko says one key to addressing that problem will be getting tighter control of Ukraine's borders, something that requires cooperation from neighbors. To that end, he's hoping for a "trilateral" meeting in May of Ukraine, Russia, and the US.
By then, the March elections will have delivered a fresh reading of Ukraine's political mood, and Lutsenko could find himself in different circumstances - even a different post (though presumably not pitching a protest tent again in Maidan. Surveys regularly show him to be among the five most popular political leaders, though Ukrainian bloggers say he appears to have retreated from the limelight).
But come what may, tilt East or West, Lutsenko says he is confident democratization will continue. "Ukraine" he says, "has passed the point of no return from which it could ever fall back."