News Analysis: The ‘orange revolution’: A color all its own

Posted in Europe | 22-Dec-04 | Author: Steven Myers| Source: International Herald Tribune

A Yushchenko rally in early December. The turmoil in Ukraine has many explanations, but the mystery remains.
KIEV Ukraine's "orange revolution" was either a mass outpouring of popular will or the collapse of an enfeebled authoritarian power.

Or maybe it was the political and judicial maturation of a teenage democracy. Or it was a Western plot concocted in the corridors of American power and carried out with cunning by such subversive organizations as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. (The latter is the theory favored in parts east of here.)

In reality, the political upheaval and demonstrations that overturned Ukraine's presidential runoff last month probably resulted from a mixture of all those things. And by all accounts, it is a recipe that appears to be unique to Ukraine.

For those who would like to export Ukraine's experience - and in Russia, Belarus and other former Soviet states, there are many - the conditions that existed here might take years to develop elsewhere.

"The political trend here is different than in Russia or Belarus," said Kalman Mizsei, regional director of the United Nations Development Program, who has worked extensively in Ukraine and other post-Communist nations in Eastern Europe. "Maybe it's the difference in the fabric of civil society in different countries. Maybe it is hidden, and only emerges in times of extraordinary events."

Ukraine will hold a new runoff on Sunday. If the opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, wins, as expected, the country will join Georgia as a former Soviet republic that has peacefully overthrown a government tarnished by corruption and authoritarianism. (The three Baltic states shed their old legacies immediately after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.)

While it might be tempting to view the development as the inevitable march of democracy, there was nothing inevitable about what unfolded after two rounds of voting led to the disputed victory for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

It might well have turned out differently if President Leonid Kuchma had decided to risk bloodshed and international opprobrium by crushing the demonstrations that erupted after the disputed election.

Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia had taken that route a year before. And Kuchma acknowledged in an interview earlier this month that some in Ukraine had urged him to do likewise.

Kuchma, whose popularity evaporated after 10 years of economic gains marred by scandal, is unlikely to be seen as a hero by many in Kiev. He did everything he could to secure the election of a favored successor, even if it meant putting government resources to work for Yanukovich and, in the end, stuffing ballot boxes.

Still, faced with protests and uncertain support among the security services, Kuchma conceded, negotiating a compromise that isolated Yanukovich.

"I think the explanation is quite simple," Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of a Kiev Center for Political and Conflict Studies who has worked closely with Kuchma's government, said in an interview Tuesday. "A revolution like this would not happen if the power had not decided to leave."

The power, however, was given a shove. And the groundwork for that took shape years ago.

In Ukraine, almost alone among the former Soviet states, several essential ingredients for any democracy managed to survive the turmoil of 13 years of halting transition: political competition, judicial independence and, of course, the political activism of voters in a vast swath of the world where apathy typically rules.

Yushchenko, a former central banker, served as prime minister under Kuchma, but after breaking with him found a political base from which to challenge him. Ukraine's Parliament, the Supreme Rada, is hardly a model of legislative ideals, but its rancorous sessions reflected the vigor of the country's political blocs.

The Parliaments in Russia and Belarus, by contrast, have turned into subordinates of the executive branch. And the lack of political competition in those countries extends to their presidencies, as well. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus won the right to remain in power indefinitely in a referendum in October, while President Vladimir Putin of Russia won a second term in March against opponents who, like Yushchenko, faced the overwhelming resources of the state and suffered a lack of coverage on state television.

"This is a country with a unique, strongly developed opposition, which is also a demonstration of democracy," Kuchma himself said in the interview. "If it is unclear who will win until the last minute, it means that the country's development was normal. It is like in the United States. In Russia it was clear in advance who would become the president."

The moral and financial support of Europe and the United States, has become a lightning rod for criticism in Kiev and in Moscow (which spent much more, according to published accounts in Russian newspapers). The Bush administration spent $58 million over the last year on programs intended to cultivate democratic values, if not, officials said, a particular candidate - Yushchenko.

How decisive those grants were is debatable, but one involved, indirectly, what was arguably the most pivotal event in the "orange revolution" - and one seemingly unlikely to be repeated in courts elsewhere in the former Soviet Union anytime soon.

The American Bar Association's Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, which trains lawyers and judges across the region, spent $400,000 of the administration's grants to conduct a series of sessions tutoring Ukraine's judges in election laws.

Among those who participated in the training program were five judges of the Supreme Court, including Anatoly Yarema, who presided over the extraordinary five days of hearings into Yushchenko's complaint of electoral fraud. On Dec. 3, the Supreme Court overturned Yanukovich's victory and ordered the new election.

"This is the most dramatic example of judicial independence that we've seen in the developing countries" of Eastern Europe, Homer Moyer Jr., a senior partner of Miller Chevalier in Washington and a co-founder of the association's program, said in a telephone interview, referring to the court's ruling.

A striking contrast occurred in Moscow last week. Russia's Supreme Court dismissed an appeal filed by liberals and Communists against last December's parliamentary elections, in which the party loyal to Putin won a super-majority of seats after an election that included many of the flaws criticized in Ukraine. Ivan Melnikov, a leader of the Communist Party, responded, "We received the latest confirmation of the fact that Russia no longer has an independent judiciary."

Opposition leaders in Russia and Belarus, some of whom traveled to Kiev to witness the revolution, have looked at Ukraine's experience longingly, seeking lessons to adapt to their own struggle. Ultimately, however, beyond politics and the judiciary, everything depends on the people themselves.