Ukraine’s Orange Revolution is faltering.
In 2004, massive public protests in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, swept the liberal and pro-Western reformer, Viktor Yushchenko, to the country’s presidency. The protestors succeeded in overturning falsified election results. Mr. Yushchenko’s rival was Viktor Yanukovych, who was publicly supported by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Mr. Yushchenko’s election victory should have signified not only the triumph of democracy in Ukraine, but the end of Moscow’s meddling in Ukrainian affairs. Unfortunately, it hasn’t.
Russia is once again seeking to exert its influence in Kiev. The door was opened in March of this year when Mr. Yanukovych’s Regions party won parliamentary elections. This prompted Mr. Yushchenko to appoint Mr. Yanukovych as Ukraine’s prime minister. Thus, in a remarkable political comeback, Mr. Yanukovych has returned to power, and he is stronger than ever. He recently visited Washington, hoping to convince the Bush administration of his new-found "commitment" to democracy, the rule of law and economic reform.
"I think for the Ukrainian nation and for the entire world, it’s not important who does the reform," Mr. Yanukovych told Natalia Feduschak of The Washington Times. "For our people and for our partners in the world, it’s very important that Ukraine begins reforms."
On his trip, Mr. Yanukovych brought the same message of "reform" to Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The prime minister insists his goals are to stimulate the sluggish economy, improve the country’s investment climate and have Ukraine join the World Trade Organization. He is seeking to recast himself as a born-again democrat and pro-market reformer—a man the West can do business with.
"There can never be too much democracy in the Ukraine, just as there can never be too much freedom," he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
For all of Mr. Yanukovych’s lofty rhetoric, however, his actions tell a different story—one the administration should be watching very closely. His Regions party campaigned on an anti-market, statist platform, accusing Mr. Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution team of plunging the country into an economic crisis. More ominously, Mr. Yanukovych’s party has called for the restoration of close ties with Russia.
Instead of being a pro-Western reformer, he is an old-style communist apparatchik and a Russophile at heart. His base of support is not in the more patriotic and liberal parts of western Ukraine. Rather, it is in the Russian-speaking eastern half of the country, in regions such as Donetsk, Kharkiv, Lugansk and Crimea, where many view the Orange Revolution with disdain. Mr. Yanukovych is widely seen as a puppet of Donetsk’s political and economic oligarchs, who in effect run Ukraine’s most industrialized region.
He was a close associate of the venal and odious former President Leonid Kuchma. More than anyone, Mr. Kuchma sought to dismantle Ukraine’s fledgling democracy and transform it into a vassal of Moscow. Mr. Kuchma’s regime not only engaged in rampant corruption, but was responsible for the unsolved murders of several Ukrainian journalists—including Georgi Gongadze, whose headless body was found on the outskirts of Kiev.
It is one thing to talk a good democracy game; it is quite another to play it. Therefore, Washington should not accept Mr. Yanukovych as a genuine democrat before his government takes several steps. There needs to be an independent, rigorous investigation of the crimes committed during the Kuchma era, leading to the indictments and convictions of former high-ranking officials. Also, Mr. Yanukovych should publicly denounce Mr. Putin’s regime for its authoritarianism and bellicose nationalism.
Unfortunately, the Ukrainian leader is now engaged in a bitter power struggle with Mr. Yushchenko. Mr. Yanukovych is demanding more power be devolved to the regions, especially the Russian-speaking ones. He is calling for close allies of Mr. Yushchenko, the Cabinet’s pro-Western interior and foreign ministers to be fired, even though under Ukraine’s constitution they are appointed by the president.
Mr. Yushchenko and his Orange Revolutionaries have lost the momentum. As they bicker with their nationalist allies, Mr. Yanukovych and his backers in the Kremlin are slowly consolidating their grip on power. Mr. Yushchenko is gradually being reduced to an impotent figurehead. Ultimately, this will benefit Mr. Putin.
Moscow’s political elite is determined to reassert Russia’s control over the former Soviet space. Reeling from the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the loss of Russia’s great-power status, Mr. Putin and his cronies are determined to bring Belarus, Georgia, the Caucasus, the republics of Central Asia and—the big prize—Ukraine back under Moscow’s hegemony.
Ukraine is the primary bulwark against future Russian expansionism; as goes Ukraine, so go the rest of the countries in Russia’s "near abroad." Ukrainian affairs are therefore of crucial strategic importance to the West.
Mr. Yanukovych may be Moscow’s man in Kiev, but Mr. Yushchenko certainly isn’t. Washington and Brussels should do everything possible to bolster him at this critical juncture. Otherwise, policy-makers may one day ask: Who lost Ukraine?