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A Vote Of Confidence: Democracy Is Real Winner Of Ukrainian Election

Supporters of Viktor Yanukovych rally outside the Central Election Commission building in Kyiv on February 8.
Supporters of Viktor Yanukovych rally outside the Central Election Commission building in Kyiv on February 8.
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By Brian Whitmore
Reports of the death of the Orange Revolution have been greatly exaggerated.

At first glance, the all-but-final victory of pro-Moscow opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine's presidential election appears to signal a reversal of the democratic pro-Western "colored revolutions" that swept the former Soviet space over the past decade.

Yanukovych, after all, was the arch villain of the Orange Revolution narrative: the Kremlin-backed candidate who was exposed falsifying the 2004 election, sparking massive street protests, and then losing a court-ordered re-vote to pro-Western challenger Viktor Yushchenko.

So does Yanukovych's resurrection in the February 7 runoff signal the end, not just of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, but of the pro-democratic wave that swept through Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova, as well?  Is a resurgence of Russian influence, and the authoritarian politics that come with it, lurking on the horizon?

Not so fast, say politicians, observers, and analysts across the region. What matters much more than the result is the fact that Ukraine has pulled off what is widely seen as the cleanest election the post-Soviet space has ever seen, one in which the sitting president and prime minister went down in defeat.

"We can only envy how the electoral system works in Ukraine. We envy their freedom of speech," says Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. "We envy their competitive elections without massive Putin-style falsification.

"This is a grandiose success story for Ukraine. It is the result of the Orange Revolution that nobody will be able to change."

Joao Soares, president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, called Ukraine's election "an impressive display" and "a victory" for democracy.

Matyas Eorsi, head of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly electoral observer delegation, said "democratic elections in Ukraine are now a reality."

And despite the air of triumphalism in official Moscow -- the daily "Izvestiya" on February 8 featured a headline reading "Orange Sunset" --  this is a precedent that may not be welcome among the Kremlin elite, which treats elections as heavily choreographed  and tightly stage-managed affairs in which pre-selected candidates are essentially coronated.

A Most Positive Legacy

Russia, analysts say, may have won a tactical victory with Yanukovych's victory over the Western-leaning Tymoshenko, who is widely seen as the architect of the Orange Revolution. But the democratic precedent it reinforced could turn out to be a strategic defeat in the long run.

Analysts across the region praised outgoing President Yushchenko, who was eliminated after coming in an embarrassing fifth place in the January 17 first round, for putting democratic values ahead of his own political fortunes.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
A Minsk-based political analyst, Andrey Federau, says that as a result of the election, Ukraine has established genuine pluralism and escaped a situation where power is concentrated in a few hands, as is the case in Belarus and Russia.

Tbilisi-based political analyst Soso Tsiskarishvili says Ukraine has set an example that other countries in the post-Soviet space would do well to emulate -- including Georgia, where President Mikheil Saakashvili has been criticized for backsliding on democratic principles since leading the Rose Revolution in 2003.

"Despite the unfortunate end of his political career, Mr. Yushchenko has left behind a most positive legacy, not only for Ukraine but for the entire post-Soviet space, due to the real steps he took to develop democracy," Tsiskarishvili says. "You won't find one example in post-Soviet history where a president won election amid such excitement, who then went on to lose two parliamentary elections and then failed to win re-election."

Likewise, Leila Alieva, director of the Baku-based Center for National and International Studies, says the February 7 runoff "demonstrated to the whole world that Ukraine is capable of holding a clean election" -- and that such democratic practices have become embedded in Ukraine's political culture.

"In Ukraine, it will be difficult to reverse this process," Alieva says. "The past 20 years, this transition period, has not passed in vain. There was a very intense expansion of democratic institutions. In contrast to other post-Soviet countries there was not a rollback of civil liberties, and it will be difficult to roll them back now. Yanukovych will not be able to reverse the gains of the revolution."

A Model To Aspire To


So will Ukraine's democratic example resonate elsewhere in the post-Soviet space? Will it provide encouragement to pro-democracy activists in neighboring Belarus, who continue to battle the regime of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka? Will the praise being lavished on Ukraine resonate with quasi-authoritarian regimes, like in Armenia?

"One hopes that what we've seen in Ukraine will be seen as a model to aspire to," says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That is the kind of democratic election that we would like to see become more common in the post-Soviet space."

One place to watch closely is Georgia, which is due to hold key local elections in May that are widely viewed as a dress rehearsal for the 2013 presidential vote that will choose a successor to Saakashvili. Critics are already accusing Saakashvili of attempting to assure that a loyal and handpicked successor takes over the presidency when his term expires.

Municipal workers remove an election poster of Yulia Tymoshenko from a Kyiv street
Saakashvili has also come under criticism at home and abroad for unduly attempting to influence Ukraine's election. The Georgian leader, a close friend and ally of Yushchenko, sent numerous electoral "observers" to Ukraine -- many of them beefy wrestlers with little experience in election monitoring -- during the January 17 first round, a move widely seen as an attempt at voter intimidation.

The Georgian president, who clearly favored Tymoshenko in the second round, has since praised the vote, saying, "Ukrainian democracy has won" and pledgingto work with Yanukovych.

Looming Disappointment In Moscow?


Analysts do say they expect a shift in Ukraine's foreign policy toward Moscow, but most stress that it will not be a wholesale abandonment of Kyiv's goal of integrating with Europe. Ukraine's NATO bid, which had scant public support, will likely be shelved. But its bid to join the European Union will probably remain on track.

"As for those Russians who now think that this is Ukraine reversing course and coming back toward Moscow, I suspect that in the end they are going to be disappointed," Pifer says. "There will be less tension between the two countries. But my sense is that the bulk of the Ukrainian elite and a large segment of the population still want to see Ukraine fully a part of Europe."

Pifer and other analysts also point out that it was former President Leonid Kuchma, who served from 1994-2004 and was viewed as pro-Moscow, who initiated Ukraine's NATO bid.

Likewise, observers say that radical changes are unlikely in Ukraine's policies in places like Moldova's pro-Russia breakaway province of Transdniester. Since 2006, Kyiv has been conducting joint EU-Ukrainian customs patrols on the Ukrainian side of the Transdniester border. The policy, an effort to combat illegal smuggling and arms trafficking, was opposed by Moscow, which called it a blockade of Transdniester. Despite Yanukovych's pro-Russian leanings, observers say the policy is likely to remain in place.

"Ukraine has its own national interests, which are to strengthen the state and eliminate risks at the border. In this sense, the Transdniester conflict is one of official Kyiv's priorities, regardless of the 'color' of those in power," says Chisinau-based political analyst Eugen Revenco.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani, Belarus, Georgian, Moldovan, and Russian services contributed to this story
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by: cherkasy5 from: Lviv
February 09, 2010 17:29

I can say nothing here other than to nod in agreement with Mr. Whitmore's observations.

by: Bohdan
February 09, 2010 17:49
In addition to the points that the author raises, there is another reason that Yanukovych will not immediately steer Ukraine into Russia's orbit, and that is the vested interests of the powerful oligarchs like Akhmetov. They know that an independent sovereign Ukraine is good for business (or maybe just good for their pockets), but the closer they get to Russia, the more they will come under the control of Moscow Inc. and Putinco.

by: Tatiana from: Shereshevo
February 09, 2010 19:22
Freedom of speech and free election are only two components of democracy and human rights. However, even having these components Ukraine cannot be really pronounced democracy state but rather pseudo democracy state. How politics of rich people affects everyday life and economic situation? Ukraine is classified by Wolrd Bank as lower medium level economy and poverty is a big issue in Ukraine. There is no democracy among poor people and rich people do not express their views concerns and policies. Opportunities are very low in Ukraine and life is cruel and tough.
So still diagnosis is pseudo democracy with free election for rich people rather than democracy state for majority.

by: Lucy Joy from: New York
February 10, 2010 01:31
I agree 100% with Tatiana and Bogdan.
I have relatives in Odessa who witnessed hundreds of buses brought to voting poles full of retired people. Yanukovich's team simply bribed them with 500 grivnas. Too many poor people in Ukraine....easy to bribe ....easy to get a fake victory. It's a shame for Ukrainians! Such a setback .....

by: MaGioZal from: São Paulo, Brazil
February 10, 2010 04:55
Let’s hope that Yanukovych won’t play the Hugo Chávez by dismantling the electoral-democratic apparatus that put him on power.

by: Mart from: Tallinn
February 10, 2010 07:56
I am interested in, and worried about the future of the Ukrainian language. Russification process that lasted many decades has set both Ukrainian and Belorussian in a perilous position, and the so-called "2 official languages" demand by Russian speakers really would mean the destruction of the national language. One example: look at the portal www.delfi.ua . The moneygreedy Estonian businessmen that, to my knowledge own the portal, do not even care to have 2 languages parallel, it is so much easier to ignore the very existence of Ukrainian. Lukashenka has managed, like elephant in a china shop, to bring about a massive destruction of Belorussian in only 15 years of savagery. This issue needs to be intensely addressed, it seems, if Ukrainian and Belorussian--and for that matter, Estonian and Latvian too--are about to survive.

by: Robert from: Prague
February 10, 2010 12:41
It is interesting that for the first time in the Putin period, Russia will have an ally (presumably) who has more electoral legitimacy than the rulers in the Kremlin have. Will it factor into their relations that Yanukovych is no Karimov or Lukashenka or whoever? Will it give him some special leverage?

by: elmer
February 10, 2010 14:41
As noted by Tatiana, Ukraine still has a huge problem - oligarchs having a stranglehold on the government. Add to that a hugely corrupt patronage system, a system of appointments based on favors and political support, rather than on elections. One example - the oblast (province) governors are appointed, not elected. Nepotism and closed parliamentary election lists - Yanukovych's son is a member of parliament because he was "on the list" - but he has no ostenstible qualifications.

As far as the elections, the assorted international observers were not paying close enough attention. The Interior Ministry confiscated pens with disappearing ink - an old trick. And, as pointed out by Lucy Joy, there seemed to be lots of busing in certain areas. In Odessa, for example, Yanukovych got a majority of the votes.

Yanukovych is a product of the Kuichma regime, and a product of a political machine, which includes Akhmetov (a billionaire and a member of Parliament who does not hesitate in the least to use government for his own personal wealth - there are other oligarchs as well who do the same thing; it's decrepit).

Ukraine is not yet a full democracy. It will take a lot of pressure on Yanukovych and his band of Kuchmists to keep Ukraine moving towards full democracy, or at least not regressing back to Kuchmism.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
February 10, 2010 21:48
Yes, it is an intersting question, Robert.

It will be interesting to see if the democratic victory of Yanukovich will influence the political landscape of Russia.

You are right, that now Yanukovich has much more legitimacy than Medvedev or Putin.
Probably some progressive figures in the elite circles of Russia begin to think about a similar political takeover. (especially those who represent a minority among the Kremlin elite...)

The liberal circles around Medvedev could be inspired and motivated to broke with the system of Putin and begin to build an own political camp separated from the silovikis around Putin and Sechin...

The forcoming years will be interesting to watch! :)

by: Iryna from: Ukraine
February 11, 2010 00:27
Really naive comment - democracy can be easily destroyed with Yanukovich coming to power as it happened in Russia immediately after Putin coming to power in Russia. Yuschenko will remain in Ukrainian history as a betrayer of Ukrainian independence as he made a way for Yanukovich . Without Tymoshenko Yuschenko would never become a president. And after that he destroyed chances of Ukraine for the European future and sovereignty. There is no any doubt that Yanukovich will lead Ukraine back to the USSR. The only hope is that Tymoshenko will prove falsifications and will get another chance for a democracy in Ukraine.
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