January 15, 2010

A Plea to Yushchenko

Viktor Yushchenko, courtesy of maiak.info/flickr

Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko
(cc) maiak.info/flickr

The Orange Revolution officially comes to a close on Sunday. Save a miracle, President Viktor Yushchenko, who five years ago lead massive demonstrations that toppled an authoritarian regime, will be soundly defeated, Jeremy Druker comments for ISN Security Watch.

By Jeremy Druker in Prague for ISN Security Watch

The euphoria has long ago worn away from those days in November 2004 when throngs of Ukrainians began to don all things orange and fill up the country’s squares to protest a fraudulent election.

All the bickering between members of the Orange coalition, dozens of scandals, pervasive corruption and an imploding economy did away with the optimism that Ukraine could quickly become a modern, European democracy.

But the disappointment today for many Ukrainians runs even deeper because of the fall of one of the heroes of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, who rallied the crowds that jubilant winter and survived an apparent poisoning.

Yushchenko has by now lost many of the credentials that once made him a poster child for the potential of ‘people power’ to overthrow corrupt regimes in the former Soviet Union and install western-oriented democracies.

Under Yushchenko’s leadership, remarkably little has been done in terms of instituting long-needed reforms (to ensure the independence of the judiciary, for example, or to fight corruption in a systematic way). Though admittedly hamstrung by devolution of some of his powers to parliament, Yushchenko repeatedly sullied himself through unabashed power grabs, often in competition with his former ‘Orange’ ally Yulia Tymoshenko.

The past few months of campaigning have only besmirched Yushchenko’s reputation further, as he has lashed out at his rivals in vulgar and nationalistic language and faced accusations of misusing government funds (so-called administrative resources) for his campaign. He also seems to be operating in his own little world, absurdly self-confident, almost messianic, despite poll ratings under 5 percent. (“Today an alternative to President Yushchenko doesn’t exist,” he told The Wall Street Journal).

The net impact of all the infighting and lack of reform on the general population is disheartening, to say the least.

According to a poll conducted late last year by the Pew Research Center, a mere 30 percent of those surveyed voiced approval for the shift to democracy, placing Ukraine last among the other ex-communist countries analyzed. And, as reported by RFE/RL, another poll conducted by the Kiev-based Razumkov polling agency found only 7 percent of Ukrainians confident that their country was moving in the right direction.

There is still time, however, for the president to preserve part of his legacy. And, in the midst of the disgust and disappointment with how things turned out, that legacy should not be forgotten. Chaos and corruption may still abound, but without Yushchenko bravely contesting those fixed elections, it’s hard to imagine today’s political plurality, freedom of the media and vibrant civil society.

Once the results inevitably come in that he has been soundly defeated, Yushchenko would be well-advised to stand aside and face reality. Unless he really does have proof of fraud once again, it won’t be time for protests, but simply a peaceful transfer of power.

Jeremy Druker is executive director, editor-in-chief and one of the founders ofTransitions Online.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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