The Real Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The plight of Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine reminds us of the many other politicians in the post-Soviet world who raised large expectations in the West only to disappoint in the end - Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin come to mind.

President Viktor Yushchenko

Perhaps it's time to take a more realistic look at what's going on in the former Soviet Union.

At the time of Ukraine's so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, many in the West saw largely what they wanted to see: a people rising up against corruption, manipulated politics and crude Russian pressures in the name of moving closer to democracy, free markets and the West.

Yushchenko, survivor of a dastardly murder attempt, and his running mate, Yulia Tymoshenko, were the stars. Vladimir Putin of Russia was the villain, scheming to deny the Ukrainian people their freedom.

What the West chose not to see was that Yushchenko is more a technocrat than a leader, and that Tymoshenko was at best a tactical ally whose suspect fortune and populist politics were bound to come in conflict with Yushchenko's plodding pragmatism.

More to the point, many in the West chose to overlook the fact that Ukraine, like most other former Soviet republics (with the exception of the three small Baltic states), remains intricately intertwined with Russia and the other republics.

In Ukraine, part of the Slavic core of the old Soviet empire, half the residents still identify closely with Russia, both ethnically and nationally.

So to believe that Yushchenko could single-handedly shift Ukraine into the Western orbit was naïve. Not only was Russia interfering, but Europe was, and is, far more interested in Russian gas than in Ukrainian democracy.

Fifteen years into the process, the dismantling of the Soviet state is still a work in progress and politics is still largely a bald power struggle, with countless players and alliances. In Ukraine, thousands of candidates and 45 parties are slugging it out for 450 seats in the March 26 parliamentary elections.

It is typical, and predictable, that incumbents have pounced on Yushchenko for having been forced to accept doubled gas prices from Russia.

Oddly enough, Putin is achieving what Yushchenko failed to do. By punishing Yushchenko for trying to pull Ukraine away from Russia, Putin is pushing Ukraine away from Russia.

Source: International Herald Tribune