As Ukraine’s parliamentary and local elections approach this weekend, there have been a number of stories offering analysis of that country’s complex political situation. Whether the stories talk about the tarnishing of the promises of the Orange Revolution, or the sharp-elbowed scramble of many–from oligarchs to petty criminals–to secure parliamentary seats with their guaranteed immunity from the law, or whether they discuss the Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko political divorce, almost all of the stories express disappointment after the great promise of what had happened in Kiev’s Independence Square, the Maidan.
A lot of these reports make fair and valid and true points about internal Orange turmoil. But many of these reports miss some critical elements of the Ukrainian political scene.
The Orange Revolution was dramatic and captured the attention of the world. The citizens of the Ukraine, demanding change and freedom, faced down the entrenched and corrupt Kuchma government, Russian money and operatives, and oligarch clans. The citizens on Kiev’s Independence Square kept alive Yushchenko’s candidacy after his life had nearly been taken by poison in the middle of the campaign, and then again after the original election was so badly manipulated as to be a farce.
Yet, despite all of the joy and celebration over this profound democratic expression in the Ukraine, the Orange Revolution was primarily a combination of forces united against the Kuchma regime, Russian interference, and oligarch domination. It was not a movement united behind a unitary and focused vision and common positive goals. Yushchenko’s objectives and approach were not shared by all of those who surrounded him on the stage of the Maidan.
Those tenuous alliances were from the very beginning destined to unravel. There were too many hyperactive egos and widely divergent objectives, along with too little commitment to Yushchenko and the program he had presented the country. The internal turmoil was easily visible even as the Yushchenko government was being formed.
As a result, the single biggest political dynamic casting its dark shadow over this weekend’s parliamentary elections is the disappointment of the citizens who anticipated immediate results that far exceeded anything possible in the short-term. Dashed expectations lead to harsh criticisms, and harsh criticisms can lead to major shifts in political alliances.
Polling and analysis suggest that the party likely to win the largest percentage of seats in the parliament under the new and troublesome election rules is the Party of the Regions. This is the party led by Viktor Yanukovych, the ex-con, former Kuchma prime minister who was defeated by President Yushchenko and the Orange Revolution less than a year and a half ago. But rather than an indication of the wizardry of American public-relations agents, or the reformation of a hard-line throwback, the perceived ascendancy of Yanukovych is really an indication that he and his supporters have essentially held onto his 2004 base while the fragmentation of the Orange alliances has divided the strength of the 2004 majority.
Most troubling is the common suggestion that Yushchenko has let down his supporters, who are now following others away from the Maidan stage. What is lacking is an appropriate discussion about what faces the president. Surely the missteps of the government under Yushchenko have disappointed many and are clearly a greater influence on the broad sweep of Ukrainian voters than is a revitalized Yanukovych. But with the election before us, it is critically important that voters and observers face the reality that has been visited upon Yushchenko and the Orange promises from the very beginning.
First, Yushchenko has never fully recovered from the poisoning that grabbed world’s attention, and this is a disgusting legacy to the cruel and evil ways of Yushchenko’s 2004 opponents. The side-by-side pictures of Yushchenko, the strikingly handsome candidate, and Yushchenko, the facially disfigured and discolored survivor, have long since disappeared from newspapers and televisions screens. But the poison has not completely left the president’s body. It continues to sap his strength and the strength of the Orange cause.
When the analysis of the poisoning became public in late 2004, experts were amazed that Yushchenko lived. Even more astonishing was that he continued to campaign, and demanded that his body allow him to lead the democratic uprising of Independence Square. This perseverance was a courageous act, but it has cost him, and this cost has not been adequately taken into account in the calculations of the government’s missteps and struggles. There can be no question that Yushchenko, the promises of the Maidan, and the Ukraine continue to bear the heavy cross placed upon them by the cowards who tried to replace the ballot box with lethal poison.
Second, with very few exceptions Viktor Yushchenko has not been surrounded in government by people committed to his vision and programs for Ukraine. Even in mature democracies a new administration must have legions of fully committed supporters if a new leader’s programs and promises are to be implemented successfully. Viktor Yushchenko never had such support.
Even before the polling stations opened on December 26, 2004, those surrounding Yushchenko were competing for positions, undermining the Yushchenko vision, and abandoning the leader selected by Ukraine’s voters. It was Yushchenko and his vision, not a collection of widely divergent visions, that was elected to office.
Nevertheless, even poisoned and surrounded by competing egos with narrow self-interests and agendas, Viktor Yushchenko remains a symbol of a new Ukraine, an independent Ukraine, with a desire to shed its corrupt and Communist past. Whether it is fully appreciated in his country or around the world, Viktor Yushchenko has literally put his life on the line and has not given up. Whatever happens in Sunday’s elections, the Ukraine will have a nationwide campaign with an open and free media, and cities full of colored tents with information on the various political parties and campaigns. Under Yushchenko, everyone can express his own viewpoint. The contrast with 2004, or, for that matter, with last week’s elections in Belarus, is as stark as it can be.
Flaws and setbacks and all, Yushchenko has ushered in a new era of Ukrainian openness that is already so accepted that it is taken for granted. Analysts of Sunday’s balloting will be well advised not to count him out. What came together on the Maidan still lives in the hearts of the people of Ukraine and in the soul of Viktor Yushchenko.