The Magazine

A Revolution Gone Sour?

Ukraine's Orange team, two years later.

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Realists care about Ukraine. With nearly 50 million people and a territory the size of France, Ukraine is a pivotal player in the Black Sea region. Roughly 80 percent of Western Europe's gas imports pass through Ukraine. By 2010 Ukraine wants to start transiting Caspian and Azerbaijan oil to Europe. In September, Kiev got the Pentagon's attention when it signaled interest in selling its Kolchuga passive detection system to Iran. The radar system detects takeoff and formation of aircraft groups. Ukraine could easily revert to being a useful piece on the Russian chessboard as Putin tries to thwart American interests in different parts of the world.

What does Yushchenko want? People here tell me he wants to reposition himself politically to siphon off at least some of the support upon which Yanukovich relies in the pro-Russian eastern part of the country. Among other things, Yushchenko has been reaching out to influential businessmen with strong ties to Russia in an apparent attempt to build a counterweight to Yanukovich. This week he appointed Valery Khorosh kovsky, a businessman with close ties to the Russian steel industry, to become a senior member of his foreign policy team. Although Yanukovich has been slicing away at his power, the president of Ukraine still technically retains power over foreign and defense policy. The president understands, says one adviser, that NATO is "not the bestselling product at the moment." Public support for membership in the alliance has dropped by at least half to less than 20 percent in the last two years.

But allies insist that Yushchenko has not given up his robust pro-Western attitudes. He continues to advocate E.U. membership for Ukraine, even if that is a distant dream. He wants his country to take more active steps toward NATO membership and plans to embark on a campaign to reestablish and increase public support. "Yushchenko still sees joining NATO as Ukraine's best guarantee for independence," says a banker with close ties to the president.

What does Yanukovich want? He came to Washington recently, quoted Martin Luther King in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and tried to convince Americans that he agrees E.U. and NATO membership would serve his country well, albeit at a much slower pace than Yushchenko once pushed for. "Yanukovich may not be so devilish a figure," says long-time democracy activist Inna Pidluska. She was not the only one who was surprised by the prime minister's recent announcement that Ukraine would not join a customs union with Russia.

Still, Putin acts as if he wants to buy Yanukovich, and some say Yanukovich looks like he's for sale. After Yanukovich's appointment as prime minister in August, Putin invited Yanukovich--and not the president as protocol would have dictated--to join the heads of state from the Eurasian Economic Community for meetings at the Russian resort town of Sochi. At the Sochi meetings, Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom promised Yanukovich he need not worry about gas prices, at least until the end of the year. Incidentally, Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko gets huge energy discounts for good behavior and loyalty to Moscow.

One could easily lose heart over such developments. At the moment, Ukraine looks positioned to muddle through at best. But then the Orange Revolution, like other outbursts of people power, was accompanied by a good deal of irrational exuberance. What totalitarian dictatorship took decades to destroy, democracy may take equally long to repair.

Ihor Kohut, who heads an NGO dealing with the Ukrainian legislature, urges Ukraine supporters to remember, "We've won the basic tools of democracy, such as fair and free parliamentary elections." A solid majority of Ukrainians support the right of independent NGOs to monitor elections. The head of Caritas Ukraine, a German journalist turned social worker and civic organizer named Andriy Waskowycz, tells me that the Orange Revolution awakened a strong civic spirit and social participation. In his view, this spirit is still alive, and it will be extremely difficult for anyone to put all this back in the bottle. To me, the democracy ideologue, that sounds about right. Meanwhile, as Vladimir Putin campaigns to restore Russia's position on the world stage, we still have a few other issues to ponder when we think about Ukraine.

Jeffrey Gedmin is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin and a columnist for Die Welt.