The Revolution is Dead. Long Live the Revolution.
Just because the Orange revolutionaries lost in Ukraine, doesn't mean their cause did.
Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych’s apparent victory in yesterday’s presidential election over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — at last count, he had about a 3 percent lead and was pushing Tymoshenko to concede — has many observers ready to proclaim the death of the Orange Revolution. Indeed, the revolution’s hero, Viktor Yushchenko, got less than 6 percent of the vote last month in the election’s first round. If his prime minister, Tymoshenko, loses too, the election will certainly mark a reverse-changing of the guard. This year’s victor, Yanukovych, was the very leader ousted after hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev in chilly November and December, 2004.
Nothing like that is expected this time because much has changed since 2004. And despite its apparent reversal, the Orange Revolution is partly responsible for the much improved climate this time around.
For sure, Ukrainians have good reason to feel disappointed with what became of the Orange Revolution of 2004; its dreams were never realized, leading to tremendous disillusionment among Ukrainians and observers in the West. President Yushchenko’s dismal showing in the first round reflected the population’s strong disapproval of his leadership. Tymoshenko, Yushchenko’s erstwhile Orange Revolution partner, also bore responsibility as current prime minister — overseeing a disastrous economic performance last year that saw GDP decline nearly 15 percent. Even in Europe and Washington, "Ukraine fatigue" had set in.
So now, five years after so many Ukrainians went to the polls to enthusiastically vote for their candidate, this time around many held their nose while casting their ballots, voting as much against Yushchenko as for a candidate. Turnout in the first round, while lower than in 2004, was a respectable 67 percent; in the second round, it was 68 percent. (Ukrainians, trained during Soviet times to turn out to vote, still take their civic responsibility seriously, even in freezing cold temperatures.)
But while less invigorating than the 2004 campaign, this year’s vote was also quite a bit cleaner. Last time, the leading opposition candidate, Yushchenko, was poisoned with dioxin; those responsible have still not been held accountable. The media in 2004 operated in a climate of fear and were given orders from the administration on what to write and report. The party in power engaged in massive electoral abuse, for example by spending state resources to support the candidacy of the incumbent, Yanukovych. Russia weighed in — in an incredibly heavy-handed manner, providing some $600 million in support of Yanukovych’s campaign. As if the message wasn’t clear enough, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood at Yanukovych’s side twice during the race to demonstrate his country’s support for the incumbent, once during a military parade down a main street in Kiev. Of course, Moscow’s support eventually backfired as Ukrainians decided that they (not the Russians) should choose their leader.
No such funny business was repeated this time around, nor during parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2007. None of the candidates faced harm or intimidation. The media are today the freest and most diverse in the former Soviet Union. Although some journalists are still on the payrolls of candidates and business interests (it doesn’t help that oligarchs own most of the TV stations), they are free to slam the government and candidates at will — without fear for their lives. Administrative abuses have been minimal, evidenced by the fact that the sitting president came in an embarrassing fifth place. And even Russia largely stayed on the sidelines, having learned its lesson the hard way five years ago. Besides, this time Moscow seemed ambivalent between the two front-runners. As one observer put it, Moscow likes Tymoshenko but doesn’t trust her; they trust Yanukovych more but don’t like him.
All these positives add up to an election that is fundamentally different from the 2004 vote. This is in fact the third ballot, after the two parliamentary ones in 2006 and 2007, to have passed the test of international election observers. In other words, Ukraine has shown that it knows how to conduct good elections in a relatively democratic space. That neither candidate in this second round was terribly appealing should not detract from the gains that have been made over the past five years.
Moreover, results in the first round also offered hope that some relatively "new" faces may not be far in the offing. These included former foreign minister and speaker of the parliament Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former central bank governor and businessman Serhei Tigipko (who also ran Yanukovych’s campaign in 2004). The latter’s third-place showing surprised many people and suggested that new political leaders are gaining momentum.
So what is up next for Ukraine? We are likely to see court challenges by the Tymoshenko camp, which, given the narrow deficit she faces, is not unreasonable. Hopefully, these legal challenges will be resolved as soon as possible, since the last thing Ukraine needs is a long, drawn-out, legal process that leaves the country in a state of uncertainty or paralysis.
Once the results are official and the new president is sworn in, it is vital that the West engages right away. There is no doubt that Russia, which agreed to send a new ambassador to Ukraine after the first round, will be looking to step up its engagement with the new team in Kiev. The West should do the same, not out of a sense of competition with Moscow but out of recognition that Ukraine is important and matters in its own right. Ukraine, a country of 46 million strategically located between Russia and the European Union, holds tremendous potential as a contributor to regional stability. If all goes according to plan, it could even become a model for other countries in the region, including Russia, to follow.
But here’s the message to those writing the obituaries of the Orange Revolution: Put down your pens and step back from those keyboard, get over your Ukraine fatigue, take aspirin for the headaches still to come, and do everything possible to ensure that the positives from 2004 do not go to waste.