So, President Yanukovych. I don’t always agree with the folks at Foreign Policy, but I think they nail this one:
Ukrainians were absolutely correct to stand up and defend their democratic rights back in 2004. Yanukovych and his party were guilty of egregious election fraud. Moscow supported Yanukovych so openly, and so brutishly, that some Ukrainians presumably ended up voting for his opponent out of sheer spite.
But let’s face it. The record since then hasn’t exactly been an exercise in the glories of Ukrainian democracy. No sooner had Yushchenko and Tymoshenko achieved power (as president and prime minister, respectively) than they began to indulge in a feud that essentially paralyzed Ukrainian politics for the rest of Yushchenko’s term. The result was a long list of non-accomplishments. Kiev-based commentator Mykola Riabchuk, an ex-supporter, ticks off the list: “He failed to bring Ukraine closer to Europe,” thus frustrating one of the central demands of the Orange demonstrators. “He failed to separate business and politics” — another key disappointment for a country where a tiny group of business tycoons wields power constrained only by their competition among themselves. No sooner was the new president elected, Riabchuk notes, than he appointed several of his oligarch supporters to ministerial positions.
Small wonder, then, that Yushchenko didn’t make much headway against Ukraine’s fantastically stubborn culture of corruption. Last year global corruption watchdog Transparency International gave Ukraine a ranking of 146 on the group’s notorious “Corruption Perceptions Index.” To offer some context, that was the same rating achieved by Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, East Timor — and, oh yes, Russia. In 2004, when Yushchenko scored his great victory, Ukraine’s ranking was 122. “I don’t think that’s changed, and no one’s tried to change it,” says David Marples, a Ukraine-watching history professor at the University of Alberta. “In Ukraine the corruption goes right down to the village level.”
Yushchenko turned out to be a pretty big disappointment all around: stubborn, clumsy, tone-deaf, and obsessed with internal rivalries. He got eliminated in the first round this time. The runoff election was between Yanukovych — a former petty criminal who seems unable to string three coherent sentences together — and the equally horrible Julia Tymoshenko. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to blame the Ukrainians for choosing Yanukovych. (N.B., while the 2004 elections were marred by gross fraud, this year’s elections seem to have been pretty clean.)
So far, Yanukovych’s young administration is interesting for two things: what he’s done, and what he hasn’t.
What he’s done: Yanukovych has swerved Ukraine sharply closer to Russia.
Yanukovych extended by at least 25 years a lease held by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet for the use of a former Soviet naval base at the port of Sevastopol. Many Ukrainians see the base as a hostile presence left over from the communist era, and former President Viktor Yushchenko had vowed the lease wouldn’t be renewed after it was set to expire in 2017.
In return, Moscow gave Ukraine a 30 percent discount on the amount it pays for Russian natural gas, which could save Kyiv tens of billions of dollars. The energy deal rolls back a landmark agreement reached last year that some hoped would boost Ukraine’s sovereignty by establishing market-based relations and ending decades of bitter acrimony over what Russia said were subsidized rates that Ukraine paid for its gas.
Russian officials could hardly contain their pleasure, calling the deal historic. Since the Orange Revolution five years ago, Moscow has fumed over Ukraine’s drive to join NATO and other Western-leaning policies. Now Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said the gas-for-fleet deal is an “expensive” necessity for Moscow but that cooperation with Ukraine was more important than money.
“Cooperation in the military area improves a level of trust between two countries, gives us a chance to work with trust in the economy, the social sphere, and in politics as well,” Putin said. “That’s the most important thing.”
This is the event that caused chaos in Ukraine’s parliament a week or so back. Yanukovych has also moved to elevate the Russian language to the status of a second official language in Ukraine, and has entered into negotiations with the Russians over closer military cooperation and industrial joint ventures.
He’s also made a number of symbolic gestures. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril was invited to a special ceremony before his inauguration. He’s rejected the Yushchenko administration’s characterization of the Soviet-era Ukrainian famine as “genocide”, and has removed two WWII-era anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalists from official hagiography. And he has invited Russian and Belarusan troops to march in Kiev for the Victory Day parade — the first time Russian troops have done this since independence.
This is, by and large, great news for the Kremlin. A hostile Ukraine was a minor but chronic strategic headache for Russia; a friendly one is pretty much pure gravy. But that’s a topic for another post. What’s interesting here is the question: is this the end of the Orange Revolution?
Well… maybe. If the Revolution is viewed purely in terms of Ukrainian nationalism, then yes, it is. But if it’s viewed as Ukrainians protesting for fair elections and something like a modern liberal democracy, then maybe not.
I said Yanukovych was interesting for what he hasn’t done (or at least, not yet). And so far, he hasn’t cracked down on Ukraine’s lively press and media. Nor has he moved aggressively to purge the judiciary and the civil service, bring corruption indictments against political rivals, or change the laws to make himself and his supporters immune to investigation or prosecution.
This is not to say that Yanukovych is a European-style liberal democrat. Ha. No. But he’s not Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, or even Lukashenko of Belarus. He was chosen in reasonably free, fair and open elections, and — so far — he’s playing by the rules. So in that sense, the Orange Revolution seems to be doing okay.
Watch this space, I guess.