Yanukovych Won. Get Over It.

Ukraine has cast its vote for the guy who was on the wrong side of the barricades in the Orange Revolution five years ago. The end of civilization as we know it? Not likely.


So Ukraine has elected a new president. The winner is Viktor Yanukovych. Remember him? He was the bad guy in the Orange Revolution, back at the end of 2004. The voting masses rose up in protest against dirty tricks at the ballot box committed by Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow party and kept at it until their man, Viktor Yushchenko, ended up president. Yushchenko’s key ally in that great triumph for democracy was Yulia Tymoshenko. She’s the one who lost to Yanukovych on Sunday.

You can see why some people have been saying that the Yanukovych win is a turning point in Ukraine’s recent history. Ukrainian political analyst Taras Kuzio cast this year’s election as a replay of the Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko, he wrote, represented "European-style democracy," while Yanukovych enjoyed the ominous support of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s very own political party. "The forward-looking choice is clear," Kuzio wrote, "and its [sic] not in the direction of Russia." Russian-American commentator Nina Khrushcheva delivered a glowing portrait of Tymoshenko’s democratic attributes and prophesied that a Yanukovych win would mean "the last free vote Ukraine sees for a long time."

And what does Reality Check say? Life goes on. Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. 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."

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether Yushchenko did anything right. So what sorts of choices did Ukrainian voters face this time around? Yanukovich hasn’t changed much. For this campaign he relied on a stable of slick U.S. campaign advisors rather than the "electoral technologists" from the Kremlin who served him five years ago. But not even his K Street minders could smooth over his brutish way with words, his criminal record (he was convicted of burglary and assault back in the Soviet days), and his worryingly intimate ties with corporate bosses from his hometown of Donetsk in the country’s industrial heartland.

Given his past behavior in office, there’s certainly reason for concern about Yanukovych’s future as Ukraine’s president. Frank Sysyn, an expert from the University of Alberta, worries that social tensions could increase dramatically if Yanukovich tries to push through his plans to reintroduce Soviet-style education and raise Russian to the status of an official language, along with Ukrainian. Pro-Western Ukrainians, Sysyn notes, fear that Yanukovych will move Ukraine back firmly into Moscow’s orbit — and could succumb, as a result, to the lure of separatism (since most Yanukovich-haters tend to be concentrated in the country’s western regions) or even emigration, with sad consequences for Ukraine’s future development.

Tymoshenko is quite a different breed of politician — a fiery speaker and a shrewdly manipulative populist, an avowed admirer of Eva Peron who seems to believe more in the force of her own theatrics than in the niceties of democratic give-and-take. (One of her close advisors was fired when he refused to go along with her party’s policy of using noisemakers to drown out opponents in parliament.) "She has never really been a democratic figure," says Marples. "She’s a real politician with tremendous possibility. And yet it’s very hard to say what she really stands for. I can’t really say what she’d do if she were president."

Her supporters insist, for one thing, that she’d clean up the business world. During her brief tenure as prime minister under Yushchenko she did succeed in reining in some of the egregiously corrupt practices of the country’s vital gas industry. She’s also declared herself in favor of renationalizing many of the industries that were chaotically privatized during the rough-and-tumble 1990s (though she tends to get vague on the details).

And yet this is the same woman who’s known, at other times, to have created opaque structures that funneled profits from the lucrative energy sector to her cronies. During the privatization battles of the 1990s, Tymoshenko formed a close alliance with Pavel Lazarenko, who was later convicted of money-laundering in a U.S. court. At one point, thanks to her gas-related maneuverings, she may have controlled as much as 20 percent of the country’s gross national product (as estimated by one American journalist).

So would she have taken Ukraine in a fundamentally different direction than Yanukovych had she won? It’s hard to say. European integration is a long-term rather than immediate goal for Ukraine no matter who’s president; France and Germany have made it clear that there’s little readiness to find room within the European Union for a newcomer as enormous as Ukraine any time soon. The same goes for NATO, which is still struggling to absorb the new members from Eastern Europe it accepted during its last round of enlargement. A number of powerful factors — and not only the country’s continued dependence on Russian natural gas — would be nudging Ukraine toward a closer relationship with Moscow at this point regardless of who commands the political heights in Kiev. That, presumably, is why Tymoshenko began pursuing an openly conciliatory policy toward Russia in recent years — even while Yanukovych was giving lip service to notions of "reform" and "closeness to Europe."

Then again, perhaps Tymoshenko’s high-profile meetings with Putin were actually aimed at burnishing her with a bit of the popularity the Russian leader enjoys among voters in her own country. Polls have shown that Putin consistently enjoys much higher ratings among Ukrainians than any of their own politicians do — evidence, perhaps, of Ukrainians’ deep fatigue with the endless infighting at the top. (A strikingly large number of them voted "against all" in the runoff.)

The simple fact of the matter is that Ukrainian voters really didn’t have a lot to choose from in this election. "In 2004 it was a kind of millenarian struggle," says Riabchuk. "This time we had to decide which was the lesser of two evils." But, as he hastens to add, there’s a positive note to be struck here as well. For all his faults, Yushchenko never succumbed to the temptation to crack down on Ukraine’s hard-won media freedoms or rights to assembly — and, perhaps paradoxically, they are reinforced by the deep divides in the country’s political culture. "The Orange Revolution succeeded in opening up Ukrainian society," says Sysyn. "These changes are not going to go away. This is not going to disappear just because Yanukovych won the presidency." Let’s certainly hope so.

A final note: As this story was published, Tymoshenko was still refusing to concede defeat, despite the urgings of international election observers, who declared the vote fair. Watch out: There may well be more to this story yet.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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