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.
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.