Golden Goals

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine has passed a test of its democracy with flying colors. Time, then, to head for some other big goals.

Members of the election commission count ballots at a polling station in Kiev.

One thing is clear from Ukraine's parliamentary elections: whoever is responsible for revamping how elections in Ukraine are run – and President Viktor Yushchenko can presumably take the ultimate credit for this – has proved a quick and effective learner. The European Union said these elections were "exemplary." One monitor said they were better than the British elections.

In the space of a less than a year and a half, Ukraine has gone from providing one of the most venal examples of post-Soviet politics to offering perhaps the most inspiring example of a well-run election that the region has seen. These were ordinary elections and that alone is evidence that Ukraine has traveled a long way.

The political landscape shows less change. Ex-prime minister Viktor Yanukovych continued in an essentially defensive position, offering more insults than policies, looking more to the past than to the future. Our Ukraine are "rats." The Orange Revolution was an "illegal coup." Russian-speakers are second-class citizens. In short, he played to his existing base. Yulia Tymoshenko maintained her position as the firebrand of the revolution.

She sought to downplay her contribution to some of the acrimony of the past year, but her depiction of Ukrainian politics as a bitter, personal battle comes through clearly even when talking of former colleagues-in-arms during the revolution. "I think those guys [from Our Ukraine] would rather 'eat their own hand' today than sign a memorandum which gives our political force the right to form a government," she said after the election.

But in one way the political landscape did change significantly. Having trounced Our Ukraine, Tymoshenko has effectively assumed the position of champion of the revolution from Yushchenko. That is not just by virtue of her election success; it is a consequence of constitutional changes that confer greater executive power with the prime minister than the president – and Tymoshenko will probably emerge as the new prime minister.

THE TEMPTATIONS TO BE AVOIDED

Each of the three main groupings faces dangers as they contemplate their responses. One danger is that the predominantly Russian-speaking east may continue to follow Yanukovych's lead, in a bunker lobbing insults, trying to stall attempts at reform, and resenting reform for reasons born essentially of political defeat and of an endangered sense of identity. Such a position may convince some in the east to continue to turn out to vote for Yanukovych. More likely, it will convince them not to vote.

That seems to have happened this time. Relatively few easterners voted. The result was that, though Yanukovych's Party of the Regions emerged with the highest number of votes, his support was well down on 2004. A higher turnout would have put him in a far more commanding position. In short, acting as a negative force in the new Ukraine will probably do little to advance the cause of Yanukovych's supporters. Instead, it may marginalize them, creating the danger that they will become yet more resentful.

The danger of such significant gains for Tymoshenko is that it may encourage her to continue on her current approach – which is effectively a triumph of style over content.

The third danger is of an inappropriate response by Our Ukraine to its new, relatively marginal position. It could now look at the electoral map, see itself squeezed into a western corner of the country, note that Tymoshenko dominates the huge central swathe of Ukraine, and conclude that Tymoshenko is its main political adversary and not Yanukovych, who remains safely tucked away in the eastern third of the country.

Our Ukraine's decision over the weekend to hold talks with Yanukovych is therefore a concern. At the moment, the concern is limited – this is probably a ploy to strengthen its bargaining position with Tymoshenko – but it would become a serious worry if they moved from talking to sweet-talking.

WHAT UKRAINE NEEDS

Why are these scenarios dangerous?

Ukraine needs the Russophone east to become positively engaged, to fight on the battlefields of policies rather than cursing the past and nursing perceived slights.

Ukraine needs Tymoshenko, as the probable new prime minister, to start delivering substantial change.

And Our Ukraine must not waste the credit built up by its revolutionary past by forging an alliance with Yanukovych. That would be a bad management of political assets. It would also be an odd electoral gambit. If a large swathe of Middle Ukraine preferred Tymoshenko's feistier, adversarial style, a Yushchenko-Yanukovych linkup is hardly likely to encourage them to return to Yushchenko.

It is, then, clear what government Ukraine needs: it needs another Orange coalition. This seems almost certain to happen. If so, Ukraine will presumably have another Tymoshenko premiership. What Ukraine will then need is evidence that Tymoshenko and the Orange coalition have learnt something from the problems that marred the first post-revolution year.

A new Orange coalition would also underscore what the Russophone east now needs – and that is a new leader. Yanukovych led the region to one catastrophic defeat – in 2004 – and, now, to a Pyrrhic victory in which the region's vote declined. The pool of potential leaders is small. Given how closely money and politics are twinned particularly in eastern Ukraine, a replacement for Yanukovych would be another rich, powerful businessman.

And the region's new political hope would need to oust Yanukovych to take over the Party of the Regions, given that, under Ukraine's constitutional reordering, there are now limits on politicians switching parties – a commonplace in Ukraine's highly factional kaleidoscope of a parliament. Still, someone from that pool needs to come forward to seize Yanukovych's position.

Then, what would essentially be an electoral calculation – to ditch an unsuccessful leader – could also turn into a debate about the direction and nature of the party. That would be good for the region and good for Ukraine. Whether it will happen is, of course, another matter.

THE STRATEGY NOT NEEDED

But, while it may be clear what the opposition needs and what government Ukraine needs, it is perhaps less obvious what strategy the government should adopt. That is largely, too, a matter of what lessons ought to be learned from the first post-revolutionary year.

One lesson seems to be that the government should not make an attack on the oligarchs the centerpiece of its strategy – or, rather, allow it to appear a dominant theme. Issues of justice need to be addressed, but the room for maneuver is limited.

The oligarchs in the east have managed to transform themselves from being the chief strippers of the region's assets to being the region's chief champions. In other words, the political costs of specifically pursuing the oligarchs – rather than focusing on advancing law and order more generally – may be to antagonize ordinary Ukrainians in the east and feed a perception that laws are essentially merely political tools.

Such a policy would run the risks – as it did in 2005 – of dividing the coalition, since the Orange coalition has its own, albeit less monied oligarchs.

So the centerpiece needs to be something more forward-looking. Here, we encounter the problem of Tymoshenko's triumph of style over content. Stylistically, of course, she was forward-looking – indeed so forward-looking that Ukrainians were transported into the world of Star Wars with Tymoshenko as a new Princess Leia.

In one television spot, for example, she stood dressed all in white in the gleaming white center of an orb with the faces of Ukrainians rotating on television screens around her.

But she provided very little of substance. The aims outlined in her manifesto mix school-pupil politics ("to understand people's problems and social conflicts and restore justice taking account of the interests of all"), ersatz politico-spirituality ("to make morality and spirituality the country's main development priority"), unconvincing trend-surfing ("to use the Internet to give the public greater influence over the legislative process"), a convenient recipe to bypass party politics (referendums should "become as normal as breathing air" because "the more referendums a country holds, the more honest the authorities"), and primitive economic radicalism ("to abolish VAT," which seems the main plank for of a "more humane" tax system).

This is, apparently, a case of back to the future, to the concept of "solidarism" that flickered in the early 20th century.

It will be nice if it happens, for "solidarism in its pure form is harmony and justice." But the Ukrainian government – and, ultimately, Ukrainians themselves – will need something a little more substantial. This should be a case of forward to the future.

THE FUTURE

The key elements of a truly forward-looking strategy are complex in the longer term, but not necessarily in this government term.

In the longer term, there is a need to bridge the divide between east and west, perhaps, for example, by a quid pro quo over language: Russian could at some point become the second state language, but on the proviso that the Russophone east demonstrates that it also accepts that Ukrainian is a state language by actually teaching Ukrainian in its classes and airing more broadcasts in Ukrainian.

But that is a longer-term issue, for another government. The strategy for the term of this government should be to take measures that might emulate the new election commissions, by bringing institutional change. The first-phase changes should particularly aim to give ordinary Ukrainians a "democracy dividend" – in the form of a greater sense of security, freedom, empowerment, and better services – by focusing, for example, on reforming the judiciary, freeing up small business, and improving local government.

And the basic content of those changes is clear: if the Orange revolutionaries want to lead Ukraine into the EU, they should push Ukraine's claim for membership by voluntarily embarking on doing what the EU's new member-states did, which is to bring thousands of pages of EU laws onto their statute books and to reform the country's institutions accordingly. Those laws may of course need some adjustment to reflect the specifics of Ukraine's situation here and now, but the government must quickly demonstrate that it is "European" in action as well as in words and by right.

And it needs so do that if it is to keep the EU's attention. It may all too easily lose that attention. EU leaders have, for instance, been frustratingly muted in their applause for Ukraine's elections (when they have made any comments), another sign perhaps that a hobbling Europe is not over-enthused about Ukraine joining it.

SELLING THE FUTURE

But the Ukrainian government also needs to find ways – at home as well as in Europe – of maintaining some of the momentum left from the revolution. "Solidarism" will not go far. "Europe" too has its limitations as a rallying cry: "Europe" is not an idea that is particularly easy to associate with; it can empty political discussion of much of its content (as it did in Central Europe), and nor does it particularly excite ordinary people.

And, of course, there is the problem that in the east it is not a selling point, but rather a rallying point of resistance – and that Europe is less enthusiastic about enlargement than it should be.

Ukraine somehow needs to bridge the gap between its two halves and the gap between itself and Europe. To bridge the gap, it needs not just a different leader in the east, but also a new discussion about nationality. And, to bridge the gap with Europe, it would be good to burnish its national image. It needs to find something somewhat more inspiring and impressive than the Eurovision song contest was in 2005.

What might prompt discussion about nationality, nurture pride across the regions, encourage some serious mobilization of national resources, convince the oligarchs to plow more money back into their communities, create a buzz in Europe, slowly begin to change international attitudes, draw attention to Ukraine's many virtues and to the achievements it will notch up in the years ahead? In June and July, we will all learn once again how much the hearts and minds of much of the world's population are dominated by one thing.

If Ukraine wants to create a useful buzz, now is the time to float the idea. What about a Ukrainian bid for the World Cup in, say, 2018 followed by another – more promising – bid for 2026?

Source: Transitions on Line

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