Disillusioned but doggedly democratic
Media coverage of Ukraine’s 2010 presidential elections has understandably focused on the geopolitical implications of Viktor Yanukovych’s headline-grabbing victory. Many analysts have declared that Yanukovych’s win marks the final nail in the coffin for the increasingly discredited Orange Revolution and signals Ukraine’s return to the Kremlin’s exclusive sphere of interest. While the long-term geopolitical ramifications of the presidential elections are certainly unlikely to favour the country’s European ambitions, it is also possible to argue that Yanukovych’s victory is in fact the final vindication of the Orange Revolution and proof positive that however damaged it may be, Ukrainian democracy remains capable of giving voice to the mood of the electorate. A Yanukovych presidency may be anathema to many Ukrainians, but anyone who considers themselves a sincere democrat must also acknowledge that his victory has been a textbook example of democracy at work, warts and all.
The global community famously rallied to the Yushchenko banner in 2004, but Yulia Tymoshenko’s more recent accusations of electoral fraud did not generated nearly as much international sympathy. On the contrary, Western observers have been practically falling over themselves to stress quite how free and fair the country’s February 7 presidential vote was. Officials from the OSCE and the European parliament’s observer mission described the vote as ‘an impressive display of democracy’, while others have suggested that a third consecutive internationally endorsed election campaign since 2004 could have serious positive implications for the way in which the EU engages with Ukraine. This flurry of praise for Ukrainian democracy should not be taken to mean that the outside world now regards Ukrainian election rigging as a thing of the past. However, Mrs. Tymoshenko’s falsification claims received such relatively short shrift from both domestic and international audiences largely due to a widespread awareness that electoral practices in Ukraine have improved beyond all recognition in the past five years. The race for the 2010 presidency has witnessed none of the assaults on democracy more traditionally associated with elections in this part of the world.
There was no violence against political opponents; meetings were not smashed up; channels were not forced off the air; newspapers were not closed down. No politically awkward candidate was excluded from the ballot or suddenly and mysteriously taken ill. Such things remain everyday occurrences on the campaign trail elsewhere in the former USSR but in Ukraine they appear to be a thing of the past, albeit the very recent past.
A nation still deeply skeptical of democracy
Despite these apparent gains many Ukrainians remain deeply skeptical of democracy and many from across the political spectrum continue to draw unfavourable comparisons with the apparent virtues of the no-nonsense authoritarian approach adopted by Vladimir Putin and other post- Soviet political strongmen. In a recent Pew Research Centre survey assessing support for democracy throughout former Easter Bloc countries, Ukrainians offered the lowest levels of support for democracy and also expressed the most disenchantment with their current form of government. However, while the system as it currently stands may not be very popular among Ukrainians, the openness and sheer unpredictability of the recent election campaign suggests that the democratic gains of 2004 have already acquired a permanency within Ukrainian society which may only become fully apparent once a future government attempts to reverse them. Some have argued that any odes to Ukraine’s democratic progress are misplaced given that the recent election has handed victory to a candidate with particularly poor democratic credentials. They regard Yanukovych as the product of a bygone era whose media-savvy reinvention in recent years merely disguises his essentially undemocratic instincts. In short, they question whether Yanukovych has really changed at all. This assessment misses the point - the more pertinent question now is surely not whether Yanukovych himself has changed, but whether Ukraine as a country has changed
sufficiently since 2004 to withstand any attempt to turn back the democratic clock.
The answer to this question will determine the country’s direction over the coming five years, and will also serve as the definitive acid test for the Orange Revolution itself. After all, the majority of Ukrainians who joined the 2004 people power protests did so not to secure the presidency for Viktor Yushchenko but in order to safeguard their basic democratic rights. Ironically these Orange gains have ultimately made a Yanukovych presidency possible, but nevertheless the 2010 Yanukovych vintage will likely be a very different proposition to the regime which the country could have expected in 2004.
Crucially, while President Yanukovych may well still be an authoritarian at heart, he is taking possession of an increasingly democratic country with an electorate that is anything but powerless and a party political culturethat is among the most pluralistic in the former USSR. With Ukraine also currently dependent on the goodwill of international financial institutions for economic survival there will be little scope for any confidence-sapping geopolitical adventures in the coming months. Instead, if Mr. Yanukovych is to be a strong president he will need to strike compromises in parliament and seek to rule by consensus. Ukraine’s regional divides and diverse political mosaic create a climate that is uniquely unfriendly to centralized authoritarian rule and Mr. Yanukovych has already digested this painful lesson once in 2004. If he chooses to ignore this and other lessons of recent Ukrainian history, there is every reason to believe that the Ukrainian people will once more make their voices heard, but this time at the ballot box rather than the barricades.
Author: Peter Dickinson is editor and publisher of Business Ukraine and Lviv Today magazines. He has been resident in Ukraine since the late 1990s.