`Painful Transition' In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Freedom from Kremlin influence was a cornerstone of the Orange Revolution. And yet, the politician building speed before pivotal parliamentary elections this spring wants his nation to cozy up to Russia, which recently shut off gas to Ukrainians in the dead of winter.

Yushchenko (L) and Yanukovych (R)

A year ago, Viktor Yanukovych's push for stronger ties with Russia would have been seen as a political death wish in a country awash in Orange Revolution euphoria.

Today, however, withering confidence in Ukraine's postrevolution leadership has made the unthinkable distinctly possible. The dismissal last week of President Viktor Yushchenko's prime minister and Cabinet was the result of the unlikeliest of collaborations: Yanukovych's bloc and lawmakers loyal to Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

With parliamentary elections set for March 26, it is Yanukovych who leads in opinion polls.

Chaos within the Orange Revolution leadership has opened the door for Yanukovych to re-emerge as a potent force in Ukrainian politics.

Tymoshenko and Yushchenko complemented each other on stages during revolution rallies. Yushchenko was authoritative and measured, and Tymoshenko's fiery rhetoric inspired legions of demonstrators to blockade government buildings.

The chemistry disappeared

But once they were in power, the chemistry disappeared. Yushchenko gave her the post of prime minister but fired her in September amid corruption allegations that claimed other top Yushchenko aides. Tymoshenko embarked on her own opposition movement.

"If Yanukovych does well and Tymoshenko and Yushchenko cannot agree, that will mean the demise of the Orange Revolution," said Volodymyr Polokhalo, a Kiev political analyst.

Polokhalo and other experts fear the movement's dissolution would set the stage for a return to the kind of prerevolution governance that allowed corruption to flourish and the country's moneyed elite to dictate politics. Former President Leonid Kuchma's government was regarded as one of Europe's most corrupt, and Kuchma was implicated in the disappearance of a Ukrainian journalist later found slain in 2000.

The U.S. and Europe are major stakeholders in the parliamentary elections' outcome. Yushchenko's pro-West agenda would draw Ukraine closer to NATO and the European Union, and farther from the Kremlin's influence. Washington has cited Ukraine as an example of the kind of peaceful democratic change it would like to see in other former Soviet states.

"They're going through a painful transition," said Pavol Demes of the German Marshall Fund, an organization that promotes U.S.-European relations. "But I believe that the Ukrainian political scene will find a way to work through this period in a way that will not divert their course."

Many experts believe Russia's handling of natural gas price negotiations with Ukraine had the sole aim of punishing Yushchenko for pushing a pro-West agenda. The deal reached between the two countries' state-owned gas enterprises calls for the price of gas coming to Ukraine to double, to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters.

For the time being, Yushchenko's government has minimized the impact on household users. However, Ukraine's natural gas-reliant metals and chemical industries--as well as companies that buy supplies from those industries--will be hit hard by the price increase. Under the deal, prices could rise even more after six months.

"If prices grow, my company simply would not be able to compete," said Grigory Peredery, director of a cement manufacturer in the eastern city of Zaporozhye. "We probably would have to shut down."

The gas price increases are expected to weigh down an economy that has slowed considerably since Yushchenko's team took over. In 2004, Ukraine's gross domestic product growth was 12 percent; in 2005 GDP growth was just 3 percent.

Ukraine's poor economic outlook, coupled with the fierce infighting between the Yushchenko and Tymoshenko camps, have overshadowed dramatic changes in Ukrainian society brought about by the revolution, including the development of a free, robust media and a strengthening of civil society.

Ukrainians relish their new freedoms, but many say they expected much more from Yushchenko's first year.

"It seems that the Yushchenko team only had enough energy for the revolution itself, and none for the job that came afterward," said Volodymyr Babyak, 58, a Kiev computer technician. "Now it's clear that not much has changed at all."

That's the message Yanukovych is taking to voters as he crisscrosses the country. "The government in place now has not met the expectations Ukrainians had," he said last week.

A recent poll conducted by Kiev's Razumkov Center showed Yanukovych's party receiving 24 percent of the public's backing, compared with 16 percent for Tymoshenko and 13.4 percent for Yushchenko.

Parliament's powers expanded

But while Yanukovych is faring well in opinion polls, no party appears to have enough support to gain control of parliament. Parliamentary elections are crucial because a change in Ukraine's Constitution enacted Jan. 1 gives parliament the authority to hire and fire the prime minister and Cabinet.

Power in parliament will depend on what coalitions are built after the elections. Though Tymoshenko's bloc and Yanukovych lawmakers banded together to fire Yushchenko's government, Yanukovych last week ruled out any coalition with Tymoshenko.

A leading lawmaker for Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc also doubted that Yushchenko loyalists could work with Tymoshenko's camp.

"We see that she joins up with Yanukovych," said Our Ukraine lawmaker Ksenia Lyapina. "I cannot call Yanukovych orange, which means I cannot call Tymoshenko orange."

Source: Chicago Tribune