Don’t Give Up on Ukraine

Carlos Pascual
Carlos Pascual Former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Senior Vice President for Global Energy - IHS Markit, Former Brookings expert

August 3, 2006

Another version of this opinion was published in Ukrayinska Pravda

The collapse of Ukraine’s Orange Coalition has deflated democratic forces around the world. It has also heartened those in Russia, President Vladimir Putin included, who hate and fear the “color” revolutions.

Yet there is some good news in the country’s current political mess. Multiparty politics is alive. It can be bare-knuckled, ugly and corrupt, but it also involves real debate over how to advance Ukraine’s development as a state with ties to the Euro- Atlantic community and with decent relations with Russia. For these goals to be achieved, however, Ukraine’s politicians must give more weight to national interests and less to the politics of personal power. Such leadership may have emerged with the coalition forged in the early hours of Thursday.

On the surface, the past two years appear to be a story of failure. During autumn 2004, the Orange Revolution brought millions to Kiev’s Independence Square to fight against electoral fraud, lifting Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency in January 2005. Only nine months later, allegations of corruption between Yushchenko and populist Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko brought down the “Orange government.”

When parliamentary elections were held in March 2006, public frustration with Yushchenko produced a first place finish for the party of Viktor Yanukovich, the loser in the 2004 presidential race. As of early this week, Ukraine’s political parties were still bickering about forming a government, bringing the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

But less visible throughout the political bustle has been the welcome demise of what in Russia is called “managed democracy”: No longer can elections be won by the party in power dictating the results.

Voters have learned that the right to hold power should come out of the ballot box, not from the office of the sitting president. In championing the right of the people to challenge leaders through an opposition movement, the Orange Revolution secured a future for political opposition.

The results of the parliamentary elections still produced paralysis. On Wednesday, Yushchenko let his constitutional authority to dissolve Parliament lapse without commenting. His silence added to the sense of disarray. No wonder many who flocked to the orange cause have a sour taste in their mouths. This is not the democracy they hoped for.

Yushchenko and Yanukovich now have an opportunity to stop the political slide. The agreement reached on Thursday gives Yushchenko the chance to champion a solid policy agenda – his ticket to restore his political relevance. Yanukovich will get another shot as prime minister – and a chance to turn his tainted legacy into one of effective governance.

Coalitions inevitably mean imperfect compromise, but it is hard to see how any other alternative would be good for Ukraine. Any excuse to dissolve Parliament after August 2 and vote again would have violated the Constitution and surrendered the last remnant of the Orange Revolution’s claim to a moral high ground.

New elections also would have extended the crisis through 2006: Two months until voting, another month to seat Parliament, and then a rehash of the fight over the government and prime minister. If the polls are to believed, voters would have punished Yushchenko with yet a smaller share of the vote, making the negotiations even harder. The Orange team could have tried to reunite in opposition and block Yanukovich. That carried the risk that the “politics of no” would have thwarted progress and left Yushchenko looking yet more ineffectual.

As policy makers now move toward governance, they should keep in mind that they have lost public trust. Politics has become perceived as an extension of business interests. Any new gas deals with Russia should be subjected to public scrutiny. Leaders must counter perceptions that the quest for power is a contest for the right to steal from the gas sector.

The international community should remember that Ukraine’s democracy is underpinned by a determined people who want a unified state and good governance. Why else would they have come out in the millions in November 2004? They deserve hope and support.

Progress may take time. Ukraine’s friends should make clear that the door to NATO is open and that the European Union will still contemplate expanding. There should be a clear plan for accession to World Trade Organization. Such prospects shape incentives for cooperation among political parties. In this fragile environment, there is no need to give momentum to those in Russia who would trumpet any perceived Western slight of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

And Russia should not be an issue in this domestic drama. Ukraine should have good relations with all its neighbors – and its neighbors should recognize that a sovereign, democratic and prosperous Ukraine is an asset, not a threat.

Even amid crisis, Ukraine’s economy surged ahead in May at an annual rate of 8.5 percent. Ukraine’s 47 million people, Russia and Europe would all be better off with the political accountability that could sustain such performance.