The reality of Ukraine's revolution

Three years after the Orange revolution, reform is glacially slow and may yet prove too painful.

Americans should look at reality rather than Hollywood-style happy endings when they gauge the progress in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. Many Americans still prefer the memory of Boris Yeltsin's stirring 1991 speech atop a Moscow tank, but they ignore the aftermath: the suppression of legislators and journalists. More than two years since the electrifying "revolutions" in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, it is time to reflect on the results.

The reality is disappointing in contrast with the hopes of Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution." The bad news: Ukraine is moving at a glacial pace in reforms. The good news: At least Kiev has avoided any major deterioration. Ukrainians can be grateful that they won secession peacefully in 1991 from hypercentralized Moscow.

According to a draft report published by Washington-based Freedom House, the overall "democracy score" in Ukraine became slightly worse from 2006 to 2007. Ukraine's current performance in economic freedom is declining, as rated in the free-market report published annually by The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. In fact, Ukraine's economy is seen as slightly less free than Russia's. The January report stated, "Ukraine is ranked 40th out of 41 countries in the European region, and its overall score is much lower than the regional average."

However, Ukraine's freedom in terms of civil society had improved significantly from the 1990s to 2005. Freedom of the press has clearly improved since the "Orange Revolution." Ukraine has far more religious freedom than Russia.

The Freedom House report concluded that in Ukraine, "nationwide television channels in most cases provided balanced news coverage; representatives of the ruling parties as well as the opposition had equal access to the media." Nevertheless, many local governments still dominate the local news media.

According to a nongovernmental organization specializing in monitoring the media, at least 14 journalists were attacked or intimidated in Ukraine in 2006. Last year a Ukrainian court issued a guilty verdict for five murderers after the 2001 death of a television journalist.

This is in dramatic contrast with post-Soviet Russia, where not one murder of a high-profile journalist has been solved. Nine Russian journalists were killed in 2006 alone. Ukraine's freedom of the press improved significantly from 2004 to 2005, then again from 2005 to 2006 – but failed to improve during the 12 months up to the spring of 2007.

Ukrainians and Russians enjoyed the end of state-enforced atheism in the late 1980s. However, their paths have diverged since the mid-1990s. Russia's 1997 law formally reestablished state control over religious life, brazenly contradicting its own 1993 constitution. In contrast, Ukraine is essentially observing its own constitutional guarantees for rights of conscience. Unlike Russian bureaucrats, both in law and in practice, Ukrainian bureaucrats do not suppress freedom of religious speech – nor do they expel foreign missionaries.

Nevertheless, during the past decade, Ukrainian leaders of all traditional religions have complained about the government's glacial progress in restoring worship buildings confiscated by the Soviet regime – including Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish properties.

Also unsatisfactory has been the continuing record of provincial or municipal bureaucrats harassing religious minorities. For example, the Roman Catholic Church's charitable activities have experienced difficulties with Odessa's city council. Evangelical Protestants have had difficulties trying to buy real estate in order to build new churches.

Observing Ukraine's lack of progress during the past two years, the US State Department's annual reports about religious freedom have concluded, "There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report." (The 2006 report repeated those identical words from the 2005 report.)

Paradoxically, post-Soviet Ukraine's sluggishness in reforms is linked in some ways with Ukraine's lack of Russian-style despotism. Many would-be reformers instinctively assume that strong, centralized presidencies are preferable, while legislatures or provincial governors are nuisances. Washington's Beltway mentality likes the domestic policies of leaders such as Lyndon Johnson, producing huge federal programs and detailed regulations.

During the 1990s, the Beltway usually found excuses for the "excesses" of Moscow's self-proclaimed "reformer" Boris Yeltsin. Washington looked the other way when the Kremlin decided in 1993 to crush the legislature by means of tanks. Fortunately, Ukraine's three post-Soviet presidents have not imitated the Kremlin's most extreme methods, and Kiev's legislature now has genuine powers.

In the real world, the model of "tough-guy" leadership has both advantages and disadvantages. The principle of the rule of law can obstruct radical reforms. Constitutional checks and balances can impede a president. The majority of Ukrainians may decide that reforms seem too painful. With popular elections, antireform opposition candidates may win against pro-reform incumbents. Democracy has real tensions with freedom.

A continuing global temptation has been the myth of "revolution" inherited from 18th-century France. Revolutionaries have often expected their victories to be swift and unambiguous, but they have usually turned out to be wrong. Ukrainians recall all too vividly the past century's experiences of revolutionary Marxism. We should understand that Ukrainians may prefer evolution, not radical upheavals – without Hollywood-style myths.

Lawrence A. Uzzell is president of International Religious Freedom Watch.

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