Is Ukraine's Future Still Orange?

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- When President Viktor Yushchenko strode out before the crowds in Kiev Tuesday night, one did not need powers of clairvoyance to see what was on his mind. How different it is to start a revolution, he must have thought, than to bring its ideals to fruition.

Ukrainian demonstrators hold Orange flags, symbols of last year's Orange Revolution, during a rally at the Independence Square in Kiev, November 22, 2005. About 100,000 Ukrainians braved freezing temperatures and snow to mark the first anniversary of Ukraine's Orange Revolution

As Ukraine celebrates the first anniversary of the Orange Revolution, that, in a nutshell, is the nature of the problem Yushchenko has faced in the last 12 months and with key parliamentary elections looming in March it is a problem that is not about to disappear.

The critics have plenty to go on. Sky-high expectations have inevitably not been met. Economic growth has collapsed. The united front which led the revolution has buckled under the pressure: In

September, the president was forced to fire the entire government turning erstwhile allies such as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko into bitter rivals.

Yushchenko has paid a heavy price in the popularity stakes for all this. Polls by the respected Razumkov agency showed confidence in the president dropping from 48 percent in February, just after he had taken office, to just 20 percent in the last such poll taken in September.

There have indeed been setbacks and the president and his team do not have long to put things right. But there is also much to celebrate on this anniversary and if Yushchenko can use it to turn his people's mind to what they have gained from the Orange Revolution there is still hope that he can turn things around.

Yushchenko might begin by issuing a series of reminders over the next few weeks of how barbaric the previous regime led by Leonid Kuchma really was. In those days, Mafia gangs associated with the government ran huge swathes of the economy.

Journalists who criticized the government risked beatings and even death. In one such case in 2000, the headless corpse of investigative journalist Grigoriy Gongadze was found dumped in a forest outside Kiev. Civil society under the old regime ran risks that few of us in the West can comprehend.

As for the revolution itself, everyone knows about the assassination attempt in which Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin. But it has only recently emerged just how close the previous administration came to ordering a bloodbath.

Igor Smeshko, the former head of Ukraine's secret police, the SBU, told the BBC in remarks published on its website Tuesday that orders were, as some had suspected, initially given for fully armed troops to engage the demonstrators in Independence Square. They were sent back to barracks at the last moment.

But even then, according to Smeshko, there was a real danger of armed conflict breaking out inside the army and security services between supporters of Yushchenko and his opponent Viktor Yanukovych. Civil strife was a distinct possibility.

No one is saying that the political situation in Ukraine now corresponds to some sort of ideal, but the era of fear has at least passed. And that in itself marks a huge break from the past.

In other areas, the distinction between then and now is more blurred. Managing expectations about the economy, for example, was always going to be the toughest challenge for the reformists. Economic growth was heading into freefall even before Yushchenko took office. In the first nine months of this year it crept along at a modest 2.8 percent year-on-year compared with 12.7 percent in the same period in 2004.

No serious economist would argue that the downturn is due to the policies of the new administration. But try explaining the complexities of time-lag theory to a Ukrainian family living on $100 a month. Such people want immediate change. And when they don't see it they blame those who hold power now, and not the people whose previous policies condemned them to poverty in the first place.

Rooting out corruption was also going to be a major challenge and the new administration has suffered serious blows to its credibility amid charges that its senior officials have abused their positions to enrich themselves. Fortunately for the administration, the Prosecutor General's office cleared key Yushchenko ally Petro Poroshenko of wrong doing in late October. But it may take time to restore confidence.

More broadly, there have been some noteworthy successes on the corruption front. The $4.8 billion privatization of the Kryvorizshtal steel mill was conducted live on television, a move which has been widely praised by foreign investors used to major
state sell-offs being conducted in Ukraine behind closed doors among government cronies.

Transparency International's 2005 global corruption index also brought some modestly encouraging news, ranking Ukraine 113th out of 159 countries surveyed.

Usually, of course, a state of affairs which puts a European country on a par with Zimbabwe would be nothing to get excited about. But last year Ukraine was ranked in position number 128.

This is what progress in a country with the problems of Ukraine means in practice: small steps in the right direction, but the situation remains so dire that few among the public appear to notice that anything has changed.

On foreign policy, relations with Russia remain calm but cool -- about the best one could hope for with Vladimir Putin at the helm. The European Union has been predictably slow on the uptake with Ukraine, making positive noises about working more closely with the country but falling short of offering a clear path to accession.

Quick integration with NATO looks more promising. If reformists can work together to win the 2006 elections, the prospects for membership by the end of the decade are real.

But it is on those elections, of course, that everything in Ukraine now hinges. It is therefore vital that the estranged partners in the reformist camp can now effect some sort of reconciliation.

Because continued division could easily result in disaster. One can only hope that as Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko left the celebrations to mark the first anniversary of the Orange Revolution on Tuesday, they did so in the knowledge that there are no guarantees that there will be a second in 12 months time.

Is the future still Orange? Only they can know the answer to that.

Source: UPI