Orange Crushed: Ukraine's Lesson For Egyptian Democrats

KIEV, Ukraine -- Six years ago, Ukraine had its Egypt moment. A popular uprising toppled an authoritarian regime in what came to be known as the Orange Revolution.

Mubarak should have followed Ukraine’s example.

That was the high point. What has happened since—including threats to political freedom that have emerged in recent days—is a learning opportunity for aspiring Arab democrats.

After the euphoria in Ukraine faded, its freely elected leaders turned out to be flawed too, amid bickering, corruption and policy mistakes. Last year, Ukrainians chucked the Orange leaders in a clean election.

In came President Viktor Yanukovych, on whose behalf the previous regime tried to steal elections in 2004.

Mr. Yanukovych's government is now busily trying to reverse democratic rights, putting pressure on the press, ramming constitutional changes into law to increase his power and extending the parliament's term by a year.

Now his sights are on the political opposition.

Criminal investigations are underway against the 2004 hero of Kiev's Independence Square, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

She won 45% of the vote in last year's presidential elections but now can't leave the country.

A cabinet minister in her government, Bohdan Danylyshyn, was recently granted political asylum in the Czech Republic after Ukrainian prosecutors filed a corruption case against him.

Mr. Yanukovych, whom the previous government didn't prosecute for his role in the 2004 electoral fraud, says Ukraine is merely upholding the law.

That's about as convincing as the Kremlin's justification of its persecution of oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, last week slammed Ukraine for "selectively using criminal proceedings" against political opponents.

Democracy requires more than a free election.

As America's founders understood, a free society protects minority voices from the majority in power.

Freedom also needs an independent judiciary, which is missing in Ukraine, and a robust press and civil society, which are under attack.

Ukraine's democratic experiment is far from dead, but it is under threat from refugees of the Soviet era who grew up with the habits of one-party rule and have never taken to pluralistic politics.

Popular outrage and foreign protests should make the government think twice before pressing criminal charges against Ms. Tymoshenko.

Her mistreatment may even revive her political career.

Despite the recent setbacks, one legacy of 2004 is that Ukrainians now expect to have a say over who governs them and how.

They can't be taken for granted. Tunisians and Egyptians have sent the same message to their entrenched leaders in recent weeks.

Though these countries differ in important ways, all budding democracies face a difficult path, full of wrong turns and possible reversals.

Yet from Japan and Germany to Eastern Europe to Indonesia, many countries considered fallow ground for political freedom have made the transition.

The Ukraine experience, while sobering and cautionary, is cause for vigilance, not fatalism.

Source: The Wall Street Journal