The Hurricane and its aftermath have, rightly, seized our attention. I find it hard to focus on other news–even the growing violence in Iraq. But there is a world turning and churning out there. So, when a new (and wrinkled chapter) in possibly the biggest end-of-year story–Ukraine’s Orange Revolution”–sprang into the papers in these last days, I didn’t pay enough attention to it.
But then I remembered the extraordinary street protests in Kiev. Who could forget the riveting images of the thousands of demonstrators, many of them students, standing for hours in the city’s Independence Square in sub-zero temperatures–waving banners, chanting and protesting 12 years of corrupt misrule and what they believed was a rigged election?
But while there was something exhilirating about the democratic awakening in Kiev and other cities, there was also a good deal of rank hypocrisy on display in Washington, DC. As I wrote then: This Administration celebrates pro-democracy rallies abroad, while showing no respect for America’s pro-democracy protesters. And despite the exhiliration as The Guardian‘s Jonathan Steele noted at the time, “to suggest that [opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko] would provide a sea-change in Ukrainian politics and economic management is naive.”
Just last week, events revealed how political infighting, accusations of corruption and pitched battles over power and property have sullied the democratic hopes of those pro-democracy protesters. The skirmishes also remind us how tough it is to translate people power into viable political change.
For an insightful analysis of the past week’s developments in Ukraine–and their significance for the future of a revolution which so galvanized the world’s attention–I asked Mark von Hagen, the Boris Bakhmeteff Professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Columbia University, for his reflections.
“This wasn’t the future for which we froze on Independence Square lastwinter,” laments the internet site of Pora, the political party thatclaims its origins in last year’s Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Themajor source of discontent with the now dismissed government ofPresident Viktor Yushchenko has been a perception that it has becomebogged down in cronyism, corruption and counterproductive internalconflicts.
The crisis that brought on the dramatic events of last week–first thetelevised resignation of the president’s State Secretary (his chief ofthe presidential administration) with demands for the resignation ofseveral other members of the government on charges that they havebetrayed the orange revolution for their personal financial gains,then the President’s televised dismissal of the entire government andappointment of caretaker ministers, and most recently the angryresponses of two of the fired ministers (Prime Minister YuliaTymoshenko and Deputy Premier Mykola Tomenko)–was the culmination ofprocesses that were set in motion almost as soon as Yushchenko wasinaugurated in January.
First, the new government structure was designed to disperse power andcreated at least two (the Prime Minister and the National Defense andSecurity Council under Petro Poroshenko) and possibly three (thepresidential administration itself) axes of power that sentconflicting orders to the ministries and their officials. This wasoverlaid and in part motivated by the rival personal and politicalambitions of Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, nicknamed the “Chocolate King”for his oligarchic status in the sugar industry. Ukraine facesparliamentary elections next spring and a likely redistribution ofpower from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, in line withthe compromise worked out in December to resolve the political crisisthen. Tymoshenko represents a relatively more statist approach toeconomic reform, whereas the Poroshenko-Yushchenko team favor fastermarketization and privatization.
Almost from the start, the new government has been perceived by themedia and in opinion polls as riddled with conflicts ofinterest. Several ministers and other high-ranking officialsmaintained their profitable businesses after they took office and havecontinued to enrich themselves. This public discontent hit close tothe president’s home this summer when the internet newspaperUkrainskaya Pravda published a story about the president’s 19-year-oldson observed driving a BMW valued at Euro 133,000 on the streets ofKyiv, parking it illegally in the middle of a residential street, andalso sporting a very expensive cell phone. The president’s firstreaction was to attack the press for doing the dirty work of theopposition (and hinting at other nefarious forces). Unfortunately,this has not been uncharacteristic of the government’s responses toother exposes. The Minister of Justice was defended by both Poroshenkoand Yushchenko when it was learned that the PhD in political sciencethat he claimed to have earned at Columbia University on his officialwebsite never happened. Later the Minister even charged that hackershad violated the Columbia University registrar’s system andmanipulated his records. At least in the case of the President’s son,there was a different outcome. After hundreds of Ukrainian journalistscriticized the president harshly for his treatment of a fellowjournalist and for his government’s attitude to the press in general,Yuschenko held a hand of peace to the offended journalist andnewspaper and apologized for his “father’s” defensive impulse.
How to put this in some perspective?
Unfortunately, cronyism, corruption and even falsified credentials arehardly unique to Ukraine, as we learned again in the tragic anddisgraceful Hurricane Katrina history.
And that all this controversy has become known and is the subject of alively and critical media is a change, we hope, for the better. ThatUkraine appears to have a genuine political opposition that has accessto the media distinguishes its current situation from those in nearbyneighbors to the north, east and south. Similarly Ukraine has beenmore open to the NGO sector (including those supported frominternational sources) and did, after all, witness the most promisingpeople’s movement in the region for several years.
At another level, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has nowhere thepolitical clout and inclination to reactionary nationalism that it hasin Russia; in Ukraine the Orthodox are split themselves, but also facea resurgent Greek-Catholic Church, evangelical Protestants, and a muchsmaller Jewish revival. These are generally positive trends.
Where will things go from here? Much depends on how Yushchenko reformshis government and what the new opposition will feel it can accomplishin the runup to the elections. The first two appointments, one asacting prime minister of an uncontroversial technocrat who hassurvived a couple regimes (Yekhanurov) and the second as new chief ofthe presidential administration of a former deputy minister forEuropean affairs (Rybachuk), send mixed signals. The first is seen assomeone who will not rock the boat and allow the president to reemergeas the leader of the state. The second enjoys a generally goodreputation, but is close to the president and a trusted aide. It’sclear that, as Tomenko–one of the ministers who resigned in protestbefore he could be fired–said, one stage of the Orange revolution hasclearly come to an end.
One can hope that a new government will get the nation moving forwardagain, but the experience of the past half year has reminded us to becautious when hoping that people power translates into real politicalchange.