Orange Hangover

by Maria on September 25, 2006

(Cross-posted to Ukraine Study Tour Blog)
It’s amazing how little coverage of Ukraine there has been in the international media in the past few months (with the exception of the ever-dependable Financial Times). After the telegenic euphoria of the December 2004 Orange Revolution had passed, attention focused elsewhere. In TV-land, Ukraine was a simple story with a happy ending; democracy won and the ex-communists were sent packing. Since then, anyone who’s been paying a little attention knows the ‘morning after’ brought a long hangover. President Viktor Yuschenko’s government internally combusted as his Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko walked out. Economic growth stagnated and corruption ran rampant. And in the depths of last winter, a piqued Russia switched off the gas. This spring, a parliamentary election created a three-way stalemate that lasted for months. The pro-Russian Party of the Regions of Ukraine made a convincing comeback (for eastern Ukrainians, it never went away). It was a thumb of the nose to Westerners, including myself, who’d simply assumed that a successful democratic outcome meant victory for the pro-Western parties. For a time early this summer, Ukraine teetered on the edge of a profound split, perhaps even civil war. Sensibly, if belatedly, Yuschenko put US pressure to the side and entered a coalition with his arch enemy, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.

Ukraine’s immediate challenge is to hold itself together politically to govern in the interests of its western and eastern parts, and to encourage more even economic development outside of the major cities. Good governance and economic development aren’t helped by rising energy costs. Ukraine is finally begining to pay Russia something near market prices for gas, a move that may cut oligarchs in both countries out of the deal. Lurking in the background of most of Ukraine’s challenges are corruption and organised crime. The ‘oligarchs’ drive and are driven by the explosive economic growth of post-communist privatisation, but their activities concentrate wealth in the hands of a few at the cost of wider economic development. And all these issues play out in the context of Ukraine’s constant renegotiation of its position itself somewhere between Europe and Russia. It’s not going to be an easy ride.

It’s the price of uneasy peace that few people outside the country are fully aware of the ‘near misses’, or appreciate the implications of a war avoided. (Avoiding civil breakdown is very un-news worthy – ask NATO about Kosovo or the OSCE about Russian Latvians.) Anatol Lieven, writing in July (subscription to required), suggested that US silence about Ukraine’s new government “marks a response to ideological and geopolitical embarrassment of which the old Soviet media might have been proud.” The election result was an uncomfortable reminder that democracy doesn’t always produce superficially desirable results, or clean-cut happy endings. Today, Ukraine is in a period of what the French call ‘co-habitation’. The President is of one party, the Prime Minister another. The idealism of the Orange Revolution has given way to a weary acceptance that Ukraine must come to some accommodation of its European and Russian aspects, and must plot its own course through the minefield of other countries’ power games. It’s a difficult moment, and you can sense the exhaustion of many Ukrainians who just want to get on with their lives.

If you’d like to comment on this post, please visit Ukraine Study Tour Blog.



franck 09.25.06 at 1:17 pm

Actually, it seems to me that things are going reasonably well in Ukraine, at least if you are Ukrainian. The pro-Russian sentiment in eastern Ukraine is real, but it doesn’t translate simply into support for the Russian language and Russian government. By entering into cohabitation, Yushchenko has forced Yanukovich to demonstrate his supposed clout with the Russians over things like the gas issue, while simultaneously forcing Yanukovich to face reality vis-a-vis majority support for the Ukrainian language and culture and real democracy.

By allowing the Party of Regions into government, Yushchenko demonstrated to the easterners that the deck isn’t stacked against them if they are willing to respect the law. Simultaneously, Tymoshenko, who is now out in the cold, can really define her party’s positions in opposition. As gas prices trend toward international prices, there is less room for massive theft and corruption.

Even though things have been messy, the essential point is that everyone is much more willing to respect the law and the will of the electorate. That’s a huge accomplishment that Ukrainians of all political persuasions should be proud of.

Russia isn’t a real alternative to Europe for Ukraine, and taking things more slowly will allow more Ukrainians to come to terms with that, which should lead to a much less bitter political climate in Ukraine.


Maria 09.25.06 at 1:28 pm

Thanks, Franck.

I’d really like to channel comments on this post over to the Ukraine Study Tour blog. Would you mind very much re-posting your comment over there?

I’m going to keep the Ukraine posts on CT closed to comments.

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