The democratic "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine four years ago has turned rusty. The government is seized up over political infighting. The leader who inspired brightly dressed supporters in 2004 now has an approval rating of 5.4 percent as president. But a new development – economic crisis – may actually help unstick this large strategic country.
With reforms not made and promises not kept, the vast majority of Ukrainians say their country is headed in the wrong direction. An economic emergency can focus thinking and perhaps turn squabbling politicians into responsible adults who put Ukraine's potential ahead of their own.
And what potential Ukraine has. The size of France, this pivotal former Soviet republic could act as a stabilizing force in a new East-West divide – if it weren't so politically and culturally divided itself.
Blessed with a quarter of the earth's most fertile soil, Ukraine could hum as an agricultural powerhouse – if it worked out land rights. As a large market of 46 million people on the Black Sea, it could attract more foreign investment and trade – if rule of law ever took hold.
In part, Ukraine's leaders have had the luxury of putting personal politics first because a growing economy kept the pressure off. Not anymore. Lower global demand for steel (Ukraine's top export) pushed prices down and this fall caused a stunning 20 percent drop in production in just one month. The squeeze will tighten as Russia raises prices for its gas exports to Ukraine.
Like economies around the world, Ukraine enjoyed easy credit, turning Kiev into a glitzy metropolis where the living costs top that of any capital in Western Europe. But with credit dried up, the government has had to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $16.5 billion megabailout.
A funny thing happened on the way to the bailout. President Viktor Yushchenko called off a snap parliamentary election because the financial crisis took precedence (besides, the oligarchs who fund campaigns have lost a fortune). And the parliament got busy and passed banking reform for the IMF rescue. This shows country can come first, but Ukraine is too weak to travel the road to democracy alone.
The European Union must keep encouraging reforms, as it is by negotiating an "association agreement" with Kiev, which wants full membership. Foreign investors should look to the long term, and not run. And the idea of a formal path to eventual membership for Ukraine in NATO (known as "MAP") should be dropped. It provokes Moscow, and NATO itself is divided over this.
So are Ukrainians, a quarter of whom speak Russian and feel kinship with Russia. For decades, NATO was a four-letter word described in crossword puzzles as an "aggressive military bloc." Only 15 percent of Ukrainians see NATO as a protection. Better simply to advance NATO-Ukrainian military cooperation, as the US proposed this week, and leave the door open for membership without getting entangled in official designations.
It's been 17 years since the Soviet Union broke up and Ukraine became an independent country – but only four years since it committed itself to the democratic path. It's barely walking, and needs all the support it can get.