Ukraine: Two Cheers for Democracy

15 January 2010

Ukraine: Two Cheers for Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych were once called the “eternal triangle” of Ukrainian politics, and it was not a compliment. But eternity is not what it used to be: one side of the triangle is about to disappear.

Five years ago, when the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine turned Viktor Yushchenko (now president) and Yulia Tymoshenko (now prime minister) into democratic heroes, the villain of the piece was Viktor Yanukovych, the former Communist apparatchik who tried to steal the 2004 election. But it hasn’t been a happy five years in Ukraine since then, and it’s even possible that Yanukovych will win the presidency fair and square this time.

It’s certain that Yushchenko will lose it, and in the most humiliating manner imaginable: he persists in running for re-election, but he is unlikely to get more than 2 or 3 percent of the vote. He has been a very weak president except in one area: his obsessive feud with his former ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, which has all but paralysed the government of Ukraine for five wasted years.

It’s likely that she bears as much of the blame as he does for this disastrous clash of personalities, but she is a much more vivid personality and an adroit politician, so the public has turned against Yushchenko. He will all but vanish from the political scene after the election on 17 January, while “Yulia” (as she is known to everyone in Ukraine) will slug it out with her old enemy Viktor Yanukovych in the second round of voting on 7 February.

Last time round, this was a confrontation that seemed to matter. It was a great story: the young democratic heroine Tymoshenko in her trademark braid, committed to modernising Ukraine and bringing it into the European Union and the NATO military alliance, versus the corrupt and colourless Yanukovych, who wanted to drag Ukraine back into collectivist poverty and political subjugation to Russia. But things look different this time.

The greatest difference is that there no longer seems to be such a difference between their policies. It’s now clear that Ukraine will never join NATO: the alliance does not seek a confrontation with Russia, and only 20 percent of Ukrainians would support membership in NATO anyway.

It is equally obvious that the European Union has no intention of expanding this far east. It is already suffering severe indigestion from its last round of expansion in Eastern Europe, and taking in an even poorer country with a population of 46 million people would not rank very high on the EU’s list of priorities even if it were not also reluctant to annoy the Russians. So Tymoshenko and Yanukovych no longer have much to disagree about in foreign policy.

Neither is there much to argue about on economic policy any more, since the country has few remaining options. Five years of governmental paralysis left Ukraine in a vulnerable position when the recession struck. The apparent prosperity depended on a huge inflow of foreign investment, and the prosperity drained away as fast as the foreign capital itself. Ukraine’s economy shrank by 15 percent last year, and the national currency, the hryvnia, has halved in value.

Whether Yanukovych or Tymoshenko wins hardly matters economically. Only massive loans from the International Monetary Fund are keeping the economy afloat at the moment, and for some time to come it will be the IMF, not the new government, that makes the key economic decisions. So what’s left? Well, they could fight over national identity.

The west of the country is Ukrainian-speaking, and deeply nationalistic; the east is mostly Russian-speaking, heavily industrialised, and would welcome closer ties with Russia. So this is the ground on which the two leading presidential candidates have chosen to fight, with Tymoshenko promising to keep Ukrainian as the sole official language and Yanukovych promising equal status for the Russian language.

Given the demography of Ukraine, this probably means that Tymoshenko wins the presidency in the second round of voting. (The nationalist vote is split too many ways in the first round, with a total of eighteen candidates running.) But who cares, apart from Ukrainians?

The glory days of the Orange Revolution were misleading. The key fact about the country is that Ukrainian per capita income is only about a third of Russia’s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Ukraine kept its steel and chemical industries, and even an aviation industry, but the oil and gas stayed in Russia. Ukraine has to pay through the nose for it, and it simply must stay on good terms with Russia.

With so little room for manoeuvre abroad, and such rampant corruption at home (it is said that 400 of the 450 members of parliament are millionaires), Ukrainians have grown very cynical about democracy. Indeed, a recent poll disclosed that only 30 percent of Ukrainians think that the change to democracy has been good for their country, whereas 50 percent of Russians think so.

And only 26 percent of Ukrainians say that they are satisfied with their lives. Democracy does not cure all wounds.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“Neither…value”; and “The glory…Russia”)