Orange Revolution, Still Ripe

KIEV, Ukraine -- In the early morning hours of August 3, following a four-month failure to form a majority government in the parliament, Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko announced to the nation that his party, Our Ukraine, will sign a power-sharing agreement with the Party of Regions, led by Viktor Yanukovych - formerly known as "the enemy of the revolution".

Yanukovych returns as prime minister after two years and one revolution, wielding even greater executive power after constitutional reforms rendered Ukraine a parliamentary-presidential republic earlier this year.

Has the Orange Revolution come full circle?

As is the case with every great democratic revolution, the answer is complicated. Gone are the days of Orange glory - that period effectively ended in September 2005, after Yushchenko fired the government of his revolutionary comrade Yulia Tymoshenko.

After largely ineffective and precarious attempts at reform, economic growth rates plummeted and with it Yushchenko's approval ratings. Our Ukraine, the presidential party, garnered only 15 percent of the popular vote in the inaugural post-revolution parliamentary elections in March - finishing third after the Party of Regions and the Tymoshenko Bloc.

Yushchenko, by all accounts, has failed to live up to the reputation of "Ukraine's messiah". The responsibility of guiding a semi-democratic state - rife with corruption, neo-Soviet political paternalism, and an economy reliant on Russian gas - to the promised land of a prosperous liberal democracy has proven a difficult task for the president.

However, quoting America's Founding Fathers, "we are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed". If Thomas Jefferson's adage is applied in this case, Ukraine's overall transition is the closest manifestation of a "featherbed".

After reaffirming integration with the West as the chief goal of his presidency, liberating the media, and holding free and fair elections (a rarity in the non-Baltic former Soviet states), Yushchenko's administration deserves more praise than admonition.

After the March elections, supporters of the Orange Revolution called for the President to reinstate the Orange Coalition, with Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister - a post she claimed as just reward for finishing ahead of Our Ukraine in March.

Yushchenko repeatedly refused, for fear of repeating the economic downturn and re-igniting the fierce conflict with members of Yushchenko's apparatus that marked the first term of Ukraine's "Iron Lady".

While the debates raged on, the Socialist Party, headed by Oleksandr Moroz - a crucial member of the Orange camp that guaranteed parliamentary majority - bolted to the side of Yanukovych, lured by the promise of the speaker's post.

As the hopes of the Orange Coalition faded, an impending political crisis loomed. The president prepared to dissolve parliament altogether, threatening to throw Ukraine back to the revolutionary times of December 2004. Though in much smaller numbers, supporters of the warring factions began gathering on the Maidan - Kiev's main square and the sanctum sanctorum of the Orange Revolution.

No matter how personally distasteful to the president and contrary to his Orange Revolution proclamations, a broad coalition with archrival Yanukovych emerged as Yushchenko's only feasible choice and, ultimately, the right choice for Ukraine's fledgling democracy.

Dissolving the parliament, technically within the bounds of the constitution, nevertheless threatened to undermine Yushchenko's already-battered reputation as an effective leader at home and a genuine pro-democracy reformer in the West.

Moreover, Our Ukraine, which lost significant ground to opponents during the crisis, would fare even worse in a re-election bid. According to the Kiev International School of Sociology, one of Ukraine's most authoritative polling services, the president's party would get no more than 10 percent of the popular vote.

Give or take a standard statistical deviation, the president's party would potentially struggle to surpass the required threshold.

The other choice, even more disastrous, would have been the repeat of 1993 Russia scenario, when Boris Yeltsin ordered an armored tank division to storm the White House and evict the disobedient Russian parliament.

Deputies in Ukraine similarly threatened to disobey their president's order, should he have chosen to release them from parliamentary duty.

As most analysts agree, Yanukovych could hardly be imagined leading armed deputies to defend the parliament building (in the mold of Aleksandr Rutskoi, Russia's renegade vice president), while there is no good reason to assume a soft-spoken Yushchenko would have any predilection to climb atop a tank and order government troops into battle.

Nevertheless, drawing from other post-Soviet examples, the fact that the military option was avoided during this crisis - as in the Orange Revolution as well - is the greatest blessing for democratic development of Ukraine.

The US State Department clearly shares this view. Reacting to Yushchenko's decision, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stated: "Mr. Yanukovych has come to the prime ministership in the old-fashioned, democratic way...He worked hard for votes, he campaigned, he politicked. And we are going to work with the government of Mr. Yanukovych just as we would with any other democratically-elected government."

After ill-advised (and Kremlin-backed) "black PR" efforts during the Orange Revolution contributed to his defeat, Yanukovych became a wiser - and less Moscow-reliant - politician. For the March parliamentary elections, the Party of Regions hired American public affairs consultants.

Though not legally binding, the most recent joint power-sharing agreement is another indication of progress and moderation. While Yanukovych's image has been severely tarnished in the West by the obligatory "good vs. evil", "pro-West vs. pro-Russia" media frenzy, his political views of late resonate with those of the president on many vital issues.

According to the National Unity proclamation, Ukraine's EU and WTO integration efforts are still in place. The divisive debate over language rights between the Ukrainian-speaking (and Europe-leaning) western regions and the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, has also subsided for the moment.

Ukrainian will remain the state language, while minority languages (including Russian) will be accorded full usage rights, per Ukraine's 1996 Constitution and the 1992 European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages.

Moreover, several weeks ago, a local court in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk overturned a city council decision that rendered Russian a "regional language" - a precedent that may effectively prevent any such demands in the future.

Yushchenko's only concession to Yanukovych was potential NATO membership, which would now have to be decided by a national referendum. Judging by nationwide opinion polls, which show less than a third of respondents in favor of entry, these plans will have to shelved for the immediate future.

As the recent indignation over the stationing of a handful of US Marine Corps engineers in the Crimea demonstrated, the president was always likely to lose the NATO battle in the public sphere.

The president's most prominent critics allege that there is little reason for the Party of Regions - characterized as the remnants of the corrupt ancien regime - to adhere to the principles outlined by the most recent compromise.

In a recent statement, Yulia Tymoshenko predicted that the grand coalition "would not last for more than three months", repeatedly reproaching Yushchenko for "selling out" the principles of the Orange Revolution.

But contrary to Tymoshenko's admonition, recent history of other neighboring post-communist regimes bodes well for the future of Ukraine. The country's democratic development has so far mirrored the successful, yet rocky, path of its central European neighbors - such as Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, or Romania.

After a brief revolutionary rule of largely dissident-based pro-democracy forces, rejuvenated leftists swept back into power. In Poland, former communist minister Alexander Kwasniewski replaced the celebrated dissident Lech Walesa in 1995 and ruled as president until 2005.

In 1994, Romania's first "post-communist" government under Ion Iliescu published the "White Book of the Securitate", praising the work of the country's nefarious intelligence agency during the Cold War.

Nonetheless, the proverbial democratic "rules of game" - free elections, free media, and orientation toward the West - had been firmly established, as they have by the Orange Revolution. Poland is now one of the closest US allies in Europe, while Romania - formerly the embodiment of George Orwell's 1984 - is due to join the European Union in 2007. The democratic "revolution repetition entrenchment acceptance" paradigm has so far held well in Ukraine as well.

Revolutions always have their detractors: in Ukraine, nearly half of the country voted against the Orange Revolution. The most recent coalition with Yanukovych may force Yushchenko to take a step back in order to take several forward. We are in fact witnessing the rise of compromise politics and consensus-building in Ukrainian society.

Despite the temporary setbacks and the inevitable "strange bedfellows" along the way, the revolution continues in Ukraine.

Source: TCS Daily