Ukraine Gives Consensus A Try

KIEV, Ukraine -- Revolutions are known to devour their own children, but Ukraine's Orange revolutionaries luckily have strayed from this pattern, opting instead to welcome back the opponents orphaned by the political transformation of late 2004.

Viktor Yanukovich

It may be a triumph of political expediency and ambition over democratic ideals, but the new coalition government that was formed last month could prove to be more revolutionary and lasting than the lofty rhetoric that preceded it.

In a feat of unapologetic political manoeuvring, President Viktor Yushchenko nominated his past presidential rival, Viktor Yanukovich, as prime minister the day before the president was bound by the constitution to dissolve parliament and call new elections. The candidacy was approved in a parliamentary vote even though some members of the president's own party abstained or voted against it.

The impasse that followed March 26 parliamentary elections — in which no party won an outright majority — was broken at the last minute with the same flair for backroom intrigue and tenacious survivalist skills that had stalled the political process in Ukraine for more than four months.

The Orange revolution, which emerged victorious in December 2004 following accusations of vote-rigging that followed Yanukovich's initial victory in November, was tested from the start by the intransigent and predominantly Russian-speaking regions in the south and the east, which threatened secession in the face of what they considered to be a betrayal of the country's priorities.

The presidential contest supposedly had pitted Western against Russian interests, a struggle superimposed over a long-standing cultural and economic rift within Ukraine itself. But instead of engaging or settling the genuine differences between parts of the country, the election turned into a zero-sum game, framed by suspicion, finger-pointing and echoes of earlier proxy skirmishes between Russia and the West.

Yanukovich and his camp of oligarchic supporters could hardly compete against the stirring, photogenic cast that made up the Orange alliance, but their constituency was not a fiction of the Kremlin's imagination.

Ukraine's eastern half accounts for the bulk of the country's robust economy, bound to Russia in equal measure by historical kinship, geographic proximity and subsidized energy exports that underpin Ukraine's heavy industry. At the same time, eastern Ukraine and its representatives were no more likely to petition for Russia's overt support than the Québécois are prone to invite French intervention.

Striding over domestic affairs with leaps of rhetoric and grandstanding brought Ukraine's new Orange rulers a rush of accolades from abroad, but left a sizable minority demoralized and apprehensive.

While the revolution's backers welcomed the outcome of the second round of voting that gave Yushchenko the presidency, democratic processes were never properly institutionalized, undermining the mechanisms to broker the country's internal socio-political struggles.

A conflict of interests soon emerged within the Orange alliance. Hasty populist measures, several thorough cabinet reshuffles, tensions with Russia, and intergovernmental personal vendettas made for a fine spectacle but they also tempered economic growth and brought the legislative process to a standstill. In this game of winner-take-all, Ukraine's people turned out to be the biggest loser.

In this context, the new grand coalition can seem like a gamble, a doomed compromise of opportunists and romantics. Propped up by Ukraine's Socialist and Communist parties — small factions that emerged as kingmakers at the time of political gridlock — the alliance allocated the pivotal defence and foreign policy portfolios to Yushchenko's party while assigning the various economic and interior affairs ministries to the group led by Yanukovich.

The result is a hybrid entity that embodies the paradoxes of modern Ukraine. It has no chance if the spirit of pragmatic engagement gives way to ideological squabbles.

The government faces the dual challenges of continued integration into European and Western institutions — a process Yanukovich has vowed to support — and a tense relationship with Russia, with looming negotiations over gas deliveries that so far have been contentious and controversial. The opposition will exploit any failure attack the unsteady coalition.

At another level, the new government is an unambiguous, albeit symbolic, assertion of sovereignty, uncompromised by hidden pledges to outside powers. Observers from Russia and from the West have read all possible shades of meaning into the pact between Yushchenko and Yanukovich, each finding something laudable in its prospects.

It is a sign that Ukraine's elites have grown more thoughtful, favouring a tenuous consensus over a single-minded resolve. Perhaps Ukraine will finally embrace the kind of inclusive pluralist policies which befit a nation that straddles both parts of Europe.

Source: Toronto Star