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Ukraine: Did West Pull Up Stakes Too Soon?

No time for dessert? (epa) April 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Two years ago, Viktor Yushchenko was hailed as a conquering hero in many Western capitals.

The U.S. Congress, hosting the newly annointed Ukrainian president in April 2005, welcomed his arrival with boisterous enthusiasm, chanting his name and cheering as he thanked "the entire American nation" for its support.

That speech, and one in Germany's Bundestag a month earlier, were part of a postrevolutionary victory lap after the massive public protests of the Orange Revolution propelled Yushchenko into the Ukrainian presidency -- and reduced his Moscow-backed rival, Viktor Yanukovych, to political ignominy.

Now Yushchenko and Yanukovych are once again locking horns.

This time, however, Yanukovych is prime minister and head of the lynchpin party in parliament's ruling coalition. And the cheers of Western support for Yushchenko? Nowhere to be heard.

"Any political questions in Ukraine need to be resolved by the Ukraine government," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, responding to Yushchenko's dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada following the defection of opposition lawmakers to the coalition.

And in Brussels, Adrian Severin, a member of the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, said this time around, Europe was putting its support behind "values," rather than "people."

Yushchenko himself appears to acknowledge he cannot turn to the West for support on this battle. In an interview with RFE/RL on April 11, the president said Ukrainians must solve the current crisis "by themselves."

Orange Letdown

Some observers say many in the West have been disappointed by the inability of the Orange Revolution leaders to capitalize on their powerful public mandate and effectively lead the country down a new progressive path.

"The lethargy that you see, the hesitancy, or even the frustration on the part of Brussels and Washington has to do with the degree to which the Orange Revolution itself collapsed or disintegrated or eroded," says Robert Legvold, a professor at New York's Columbia University who specializes in post-Soviet politics.

"The Orange Revolution alliance quarreled so much, it didn't have the sort of inner dynamism to create a government of its own."

Just months after the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko and his charismatic political ally, Yuliya Tymoshenko, had been reduced to constant bickering. By September 2005, Yushchenko removed Tymoshenko from her prime ministerial post. That move split the pro-Western Orange forces and opened the door for Yanukovych's political comeback and the victory of his Party of Regions in March 2006 parliamentary elections.

After months of haggling, Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz appeared to revive the Orange forces and form a ruling coalition that would have returned Tymoshenko to the prime ministerial post.

But in the end, Moroz defected and instead formed a coalition with Party of Regions and the Communists. By August 2006, it was Yanukovych, and not Tymoshenko, who was confirmed as prime minister.

Yushchenko (right) with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Kyiv in December 2005 (epa)

"The Orange Revolution alliance quarreled so much, it didn't have the sort of inner dynamism to create a government of its own," says Eugeniusz Smolar of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations, who said he watched the months of haggling with a mixture of "sympathy and horror."

The fighting, he says, "destroyed, on the one hand, the cohesion -- and, on the other hand, some of the support -- of the population toward the government."

Divided Loyalty

Some analysts and politicians suggest the West could have done more to support pro-European forces in Ukraine by expediting the country's bid to join Western institutions like the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and NATO.

Brussels, which acknowledges expansion fatigue, has been firm in its refusal to bolster Ukraine's hopes of membership. But U.S. President Bush on April 10 signed legislation backing NATO membership for five countries, including Ukraine.

The fact remains, however, that Ukraine's eastern regions remain largely loyal to Russia, which adamantly opposes NATO expansion. As a result, Ukraine itself is deeply divided over whether it wants to join the EU or NATO. Some polls have indicated that most Ukrainians would reject membership in either if the issue was put to a referendum.

Yanukovych was once the clear villain, whose backers blatantly falsified election results. This time around, he is the legitimate head of government and leads the most popular party in the country.

"There is a quite a large group of public opinion in Ukraine that is not terribly interested in joining the European Union, understanding that it has an important economic, social, and cultural interest in staying close to Russia," Smolar says.

So did the West fail, or Ukraine? "It's a complex situation," Smolar continues. "I believe that the Ukrainian public and the Ukrainian elite didn't do enough. Whether the West could do more... I believe it could do more, but I am not sure it could do much more."

Wider Implications

Ukraine's inconstancy regarding the West may prove an inconvenience elsewhere in the former Soviet Union -- particularly in Georgia, whose NATO bid also got U.S. President Bush's blessing this week.

Anti-NATO protests in Ukraine last month (TASS)

Georgia kicked off the wave of colored revolutions with its 2003 Rose Revolution, and President Mikheil Saakashvili has traditionally kept close ties with Yushchenko. But Legvold at Columbia University says Georgia's own Western ambitions may be hampered by the ongoing Ukrainian stalemate.

"I don't see any prospect that Georgia can be considered for NATO membership -- even if it seems in some fashion more qualified -- until the Ukrainian issue is settled," he says. "You can't jump over Ukraine and address the Georgian question separately."

Ultimately, U.S. and EU support for Yushchenko and Ukraine's pro-Western forces may also be muted because the current composition of the Ukrainian government is the product of elections that were universally judged to be among the fairest and cleanest in post-Soviet Ukraine.

The Orange Revolution had a clear villain in Yanukovych, whose backers blatantly falsified election results. This time around, he is the legitimate head of government and leads the most popular party in the country.

Marek Siwiec, deputy chairman of the European Parliament, said on April 11 that Yushchenko can no longer expect the unequivocal Western support he enjoyed in 2004.

"All parties have a legal democratic mandate now," Siwiec said. And that makes a "huge difference."

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Viktor Yanukovych

Viktor Yanukovych
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych addresses Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada on August 6, 2006 (TASS)

UP FROM THE ASHES. On August 4, 2006, the Ukrainian legislature ended four months of political standoff by confirming Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister. Yanukovych's pro-Russian Party of Regions won the largest block of seats in the country's inconclusive March legislative elections. His confirmation capped a remarkable political comeback for Yanukovych after his defeat by Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's Orange Revolution....(more)


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