Small Earthquake in Ukraine, Not Many Hurt

27 March 2006

Small Earthquake in Ukraine, Not Many Hurt

By Gwynne Dyer

Ukrainians did not reject the “Orange Revolution” of December, 2004 in last Sunday’s election. Indeed, if you read the news stories very carefully, they don’t even claim that — but most of the headlines deliberately give that impression. After all, why would foreigners want to read a story about a peaceful, lawful parliamentary election in Ukraine?

The real upheaval in Ukraine happened last September, when the alliance between President Viktor Yushchenko and the other hero of the revolution, prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, fell apart amid bitter recriminations. According to Yushchenko, it collapsed because of “the failure to recognise the position of one’s partners,…insincere behaviour,…behind-the-scenes intrigue,” while Tymoshenko says that “from the very first moment that the president came to power, people from his closest circle made an enemy figure out of me.” Both are probably right.

So Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko and appointed a new prime minister from his own circle, and the two leaders’ parties ran separate campaigns in this month’s election, splitting the “Orange” vote. As a result, the party led by Viktor Yanukovych, the very man whose alleged cheating in the 2004 presidential election triggered the revolution, will control the largest number of seats in the new parliament. With a little bit of work, you can make that sound like a big deal, but it isn’t.

In the last parliamentary election in Ukraine in 2002, Yushchenko’s party, Our Ukraine, won 24 percent of the vote nationally; this time, it has fallen to 15 percent. But Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, which won only 7 percent of the vote last time, has soared to 23 percent. Taken together, they have 37 percent of the votes, a good 5 percent up on what they had in the 2002 election, and are the obvious first choice for a new coalition government.

Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions got 30 percent of the vote, which makes it the largest single party. That result is hard to compare with its performance last time, since there has been much re-shuffling among the parties that mainly appeal to the Russian-speaking population, but it certainly doesn’t suggest that there has been a huge shift in public opinion. Nor are those parties as far apart from the mainly Ukrainian-speaking supporters of the “Orange” parties as they were two years ago.

The prospect of eventual Ukrainian membership in the European Union, however distant, still has a powerful attraction for Orange voters, but they are now a good deal more realistic about how distant it is: the EU has not even agreed to ease visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens. And if candidate status for EU membership meant rising prosperity (as it has for most other candidates), then most Russian-speakers would not be fundamentally opposed to it either.

The same shedding of illusions has occurred about Russia. The brief but shocking shut-down of Russian natural gas deliveries during the January confrontation over Gazprom’s huge price increases reminded Ukrainian nationalists that defying Moscow’s wishes can be an expensive business. (Belarus still gets gas at the old price). It also shook the confidence of some Russian-speakers in the essential benevolence of Mother Russia, and reminded them that all Ukrainian citizens are in the same boat.

The rift between Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers, whose divergent views on Ukraine’s nature and destiny have dominated the country’s politics since independence in 1991, has not closed, but it is narrower than it was last year. Viktor Yanukovych still insists that “the Orange Revolution was a putsch, plain and simple” — but his image managers in this election were American, (as were Yushchenko’s, while Tymoshenko’s were European), and he no longer comes across as a mere pawn of Moscow’s.

Yanukovych does still come across to many people as a pawn of the big business clans of Donetsk, the big industrial city of eastern Ukraine, or even as the personal protege of the biggest boss there, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, but this is a problem he shares with Yushchenko, who is widely seen as personally honest but too weak to defy the oligarchs whose placemen dominate his own entourage. Only Yulia Tymoshenko is widely perceived as not being in the service of the oligarchs, mainly because she is a billionaire in her own right, a beneficiary of the chaotic privatisations of the 90s who no longer needs to steal.

A new alliance between her party and Yushchenko’s in parliament, with Tymoshenko back in the prime minister’s job, is the likeliest outcome of this election if the two can rise above their personal antipathy. But even if Yushchenko cannot bring himself to renew the alliance with Tymoshenko and backs Yanukovych as prime minister instead — either combination would yield a parliament majority — that would not mean that Ukraine is going back to the bad old ways.

Corruption will continue to be a problem and the relationship with Russia will always be troubled and complex, but the whole country has moved on. Democratic politics often produces strange political bedfellows, and an orange-blue coalition in parliament is not the worst thing that could happen to Ukraine. It might even help to heal the ethnic divide that has opened up in recent years. It has been a very small political earthquake, and not many were hurt.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The prospect…boat”)