KIEV, Ukraine — The election of Viktor Yushchenko as Ukrainian president five years ago, thanks to the immense outpouring of popular outrage that came to be known as Orange Revolution, sent convulsions throughout the former Soviet region.
The sight of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians — a sea of orange hats, scarves, blankets and jackets on Kiev’s central Independence Square and Khreshatik Street — was an inspiration to similar popular protest movements, and at the same time an anathema to the government they strove to topple.
The Ukrainians gathered for a variety of reasons, economic as well as political, but their central goal was clear: to rid their country of its Soviet habits and create a more open and democratic society, free of corruption and the regularly falsified elections that characterized then-President Leonid Kuchma’s government.
Now however, with the inauguration of Viktor Yanukovych today, many inside and outside Ukraine believe they are witnessing a restoration of the ancient regime. Yanukovych has risen from the ashes: the villain of the Orange Revolution, whose stiff, inarticulate public image came to represent all that was wrong with the Kuchma machine, just as Yushchenko’s disfigured face from a mysterious poisoning symbolized at that time the hope of the future.
The future turned out a little differently, of course. Yushchenko leaves office with perhaps one of the lowest electoral showings for a president in the modern era, just over 5 percent. It’s difficult to pinpoint what angered voters the most — his endless wrangling with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, his own seeming weakness, the corruption that surrounded him or the economic malaise which he did not create but nevertheless seemed absolutely incapacitated to overcome.
But his erstwhile opponent has undergone a change in perception too. Yanukovych initially won the election in 2004 apparently through colossal fraud — and the overt backing of the Kremlin. This time he triumphed in a contest that international observers called an “impressive display of democratic elections.” Moscow officials too kept to the sidelines, perhaps conscious of how their involvement in the last race blew up in their faces.
This time too the aftershocks from the Ukrainian vote will be felt throughout the Soviet sphere. The question is, which lesson will take hold? The Triumph of Democracy — or the Empire Strikes Back?
A great deal of course depends on the path Yanukovych actually takes. He could staff his government with Soviet-style apparatchiks and shady personalities from his base in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. He could also decide, now that he is finally in power, that free and fair elections are an unnecessary nuisance after all. He could reveal himself to be instead of a “Moscow-leaning” or “Moscow-friendly” politician (as the Western press now characterizes him), to be in fact the Kremlin’s strongest ally.
And if Ukraine, the second largest ex-Soviet nation after Russia, reverts to old ways — realigning itself with the Kremlin and rolling back Orange Revolution freedoms — the other republics will take note. Belarus, whose authoritarian leader Aleksander Lukashenko follows a policy often at odds with Moscow and who developed a close working relationship with Yushchenko, will especially feel the pinch.
For Georgia, the change in power in Kiev bodes even worse. Mikheil Saakashvili counted Yushchenko as his most reliable supporter in his country’s 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia. Among other moves, Kiev tried to stop Kremlin warships from sailing to the Georgian coast from its Black Sea port of Sevastopol, where the Russian fleet is based. At the time of the war, Yanukovych spoke of recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s independence, though he now seems to be backing away from this position.
“Georgia is the most worried,” said Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Saakashvili had a very close relationship with Yushchenko.”
Yanukovych himself speaks of a multi-vectored foreign policy. In an editorial printed last week in the Wall Street Journal, he said that “a Yanukovych presidency is committed to the integration of European values” and he would “endeavor to build a bridge between [East and West], not a one-way street in either direction.”
Just as crucially, his closest advisers say that the president-elect is dedicated to democratic principles. “There are statements by Yanukovych that the Orange Revolution changed this country from the Soviet style of administration, Soviet style of rulers,” said Leonid Kozhara, Yanukovych’s main foreign policy advisor. “Now it is more democratic and there is a real and strong competition among political forces.”
But even if Yanukovych does not introduce more iron-fisted policies, the simple fact of his victory is viewed by many as a weakening of Orange Revolution principles. To many, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were democracy’s poster children; their defeat represents a discrediting of their values.
This view is nevertheless wrong, say observers. “The Ukrainians didn’t vote to undo positive political change,” said Samuel Charap, associate director for the Russia and Eurasia Program and the Center for American Progess in Washington. “You had a loser returning to power and elections where we didn’t know the winner in advance — that’s democracy.”
Still he thinks that some may take away the wrong lesson from Yanukovych’s triumph. “I hope that this doesn’t change the way that the region’s regimes treat their people, and how the people themselves view democracy,” he says. “I fear that may happen.”