Kiev In A Squeeze

KIEV, Ukraine -- Victor Yushchenko, Ukraine's president, is looking increasingly isolated in his efforts to restore confidence in his country's fragile democracy. With the supporters of the Orange Revolution disillusioned and divided, its enemies are rushing to take advantage.

Leading the charge is Moscow, which longs to overthrow the pro-west president and bring Ukraine back into Russia's orbit.

Mr Yushchenko's main difficulty is that, under the deal that saw his predecessor Leonid Kuchma surrender office peacefully just over a year ago, power is being transferred from the presidency to parliament. In theory this should strengthen Ukrainian democracy by reducing the possibility of a future president establishing a Kuchma-style authoritarian regime.

In practice, the reform is moving power from Mr Yushchenko - the one man who was able to rally Ukraine's democratic forces - to an assembly riddled by corruption and self-interest and easily exploited by the Kremlin. With parliamentary elections due in March, deputies are more concerned about saving their seats than saving the country.

It comes as no surprise that Mr Yushchenko's opponents in the Orange Revolution and their supporters in the Kremlin are seeking revenge. Victor Yanukovich, the defeated challenger in the disputed presidential election, tasted power as Mr Kuchma's prime minister and wants more. Russian president Vladimir Putin disdains the freedoms that Mr Yushchenko represents.

The recent attempt to put pressure on Kiev in the gas dispute showed Russia was ready to sacrifice other interests - such as the trust of its European gas clients - to punish Ukraine.

The real shock of the last year lies in the failure of Mr Yushchenko and his former ally Yulia Tymoshenko to capitalise on the Orange Revolution. It is true, as Mr Yushchenko argues, that Ukraine has been transformed by the advance of liberty. The fear of the secret police has gone.

But the split between Mr Yushchenko and Ms Tymoshenko, who was sacked last summer as prime minister, has stymied efforts to advance reforms.

It is of vital importance to the European Union that Ukraine remains a functioning democracy in which the influence of the authoritarians in the Kremlin is kept to a minimum. Russia, as a powerful neighbour, has legitimate interests in Ukraine. But it should pursue them without undermining Ukrainian sovereignty.

The EU should last year have replied more warmly to Mr Yushchenko's overtures. If it could not have offered the promise of future membership, it could at least have hinted at the possibility. But even a glowing EU responsewould have made little difference to Mr Yushchenko.

Ukrainian democracy must be built mainly by Ukrainians themselves. Just as they won the Orange Revolution largely by their own efforts, so they must now safeguard its legacy.

Source: Financial Times