The Magazine

A Revolution Gone Sour?

Ukraine's Orange team, two years later.

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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I went once to Guatemala as an election observer. In a remote spot in the mountains I remember asking Indian villagers through our interpreter why they wanted to stand so long in line to vote. The wait looked to be at least a couple of hours. One barefoot farmer wearing a big hat (they all wore hats) told me, "It's the only way to have our interests represented." I have to admit, democracy ideologue that I am, my heart jumped. I recall being in Berlin's Stadtmitte Starbucks in spring 2003 with an Iraqi friend just after Baghdad residents had toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein. My friend announced with a broad, infectious smile to the young woman behind the counter that there was much to celebrate, with Saddam now finally gone. She looked bewildered, even a little distressed.

Certain stereotypes about Americans and Europeans seem to stick. Americans are addicted to huge containers of food and beverage when we go to the movies. We like watching fires, murder, and mayhem on the nightly local news. We also tend to be fairly passionate about human freedom. Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death" is a natural part of American culture. Europeans, on the other hand, tend to find inspiration in Bertolt Brecht's line, "erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral"--first comes getting fed, then come the moral issues. I have the feeling that many West Europeans, like the young woman at Starbucks, like their freedoms, too, but may cherish stability at least as much. That may be one reason the E.U. keeps yearning for a return of the realists in Washington. I watched a British journalist on BBC recently arguing with considerable fervor that democracy was not right for Belarus.

Having said this, Europeans did quite a bit to assist Ukraine's Orange revolution two years ago, when an illiberal, corrupt government stole an election only to see the result overturned by a massive display of people power. Millions participated in nationwide demonstrations. Supporting Ukraine's independent media, NGOs, student groups, and the like turned out to be a remarkable instance of transatlantic cooperation in democracy promotion. Some two-thirds of all registered voters came out to vote in the new elections which brought Viktor Yushchenko and his Orange team to power. Adrian Karatnycky, president of Freedom House at the time, wrote in Foreign Affairs that the Orange Revolution marked "a seismic shift Westward in the geopolitics of the region." Good news for America and for Europe.

I've come to Kiev to poke around on the eve of Vladimir Putin's December 22 visit to the Ukrainian capital. What a difference two years make. The Russian president has gone from "being the loser to being a player again," says Yuriy Ruban, director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a government-funded think tank. That profound pro-West shift looks suddenly tenuous.

Two years ago Moscow backed Yushchenko's opponent Viktor F. Yanu kovich. Rather vigorously. The Kremlin is believed to have had a hand in the dramatic dioxin poisoning that left Yushchenko disfigured. Then, after Yanukovich's defeat, Putin briefly halted gas deliveries to Ukraine when Yushchenko's new government balked at accepting a 400 percent price increase. The West Europeans were not amused either. They receive Russian gas through a Ukrainian pipeline. In the end, Kiev survived. The new government got off with a mere 90 percent increase. The Kremlin had made its point.

Since then the Orange Revolution has taken its hits. Expectations ran exceptionally high and Yushchenko failed to deliver fast enough on promises to battle corruption and reform the economy. Cuba, Syria, and Burkina Faso all fare better than Ukraine in fighting corruption according to Transparency International's latest survey. Last March, Yanukovich's Party of Regions came back to win a plurality in parliamentary elections, while Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party polled a disappointing 13 percent. And in August, the 56-year-old Yanu kovich, former head of a Soviet transport company, completed his improbable comeback by becoming the country's new prime minister. Surprisingly, Yushchenko joined his nemesis in the government, becoming the country's president, and since then he has trimmed his sails on a number of fronts, giving supporters at home and abroad concern about his next moves.