Ukraine: The Face of the Orange Revolution

Ukrainian deputies fight with colleagues from the opposition July 6 during a debate in the Parliament

Ukrainian deputies fight with colleagues from the opposition July 6 during a debate in the Parliament in Kiev. The fight broke out as opposition lawmakers attempted to prevent the chamber from examining legislation required for the nation’s bid to join the World Trade Organization. (Photo: Sergey Starostenko / AFP-Getty Images)

Pursuing membership in the European Union, cracking down on crime and corruption, and improving living conditions were the key points in the political platform of Western-leaning presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko, the face of the “Orange Revolution,” which focused international attention on Ukraine last December. The bitterly fought elections, which split the country in two, were also the cause of tensions between the West, which supported Yushchenko, and Russia, which openly backed his opponent Viktor Yanukovich. After mass protests against election fraud, Yushchenko emerged victorious. His face, badly damaged from an alleged poisoning plot during the campaign, has become a symbol of strength and personal courage.

Six months after the Orange Revolution, the Ukraine has a new international image and is on a firm Western-oriented course. Yet, revolutions do not change a country overnight. Yushchenko and his charismatic prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, remain popular, but progress on reforms has been bumpy. While Yushchenko has been celebrated as a hero, his leadership has started to attract criticism. Faced with the legacies of the former regime and a deeply divided society, Yushchenko faces an uphill battle to deliver on some of his pre-election promises. It will also take a long time for ordinary Ukrainians to reap the benefits of their pro-democratic stand last year. It is no surprise, then, that The Kyiv Post (May 26) urged readers to “resist Orange depression.”

Door to the Union Remains Closed

Despite Ukraine’s improved international image, and Yushchenko’s lobbying efforts, the European Union has remained silent on Ukraine’s prospects.

Joining the Union was a key foreign policy of the outgoing Kuchma presidency. The “Strategy of Ukraine’s Integration to the European Union” adopted in 1998 stated that “[n]ational interests of Ukraine require identification of Ukraine as an influential European country, and a full-fledged E.U. member.” The lack of tangible reforms and the authoritarian tendencies of the regime, however, greatly hurt the country’s prospects. Ukraine’s European aspirations were often dismissed as mere “rhetoric.” On the eve of the eastern enlargement in 2004, former European Commission president Romano Prodi of Italy ruled out the possibility of Ukraine ever joining the Union.

Instead, Ukraine was offered a “neighborhood policy” as an attractive alternative to membership. The policy, launched in 2004, offers various areas of cooperation, increased aid, and ultimately a stake in the Union’s internal market in return for domestic reforms and approximation to Union rules and norms. But Yushchenko has made it clear that Ukraine is not interested in being simply a “neighbor.” “I am sure that a lot of things will change in the European position. The question of membership is just a matter of time,” he said confidently in an interview for The Times (London, March 1).

The changed situation in Ukraine, while celebrated by European officials, has also left many uneasy about the future policy towards the country. “Don’t mention Ukraine” has become the new watchword in Brussels, according to The Financial Times (March 1).

For a long time, Ukraine reformists have argued that only a clear signal that the Union is prepared to embrace Ukraine as a member, would make possible the deep transformation of the country. Union accession has already proven a successful formula for consolidating the democratic changes in Central and Eastern Europe. Many unpopular reforms were passed in “the name of Europe”; the countries have also benefited from significant technical and financial aid, and an improved investment climate as their legislation has approached Union standards.

To many, the refusal to see Ukraine as a future member, while offering membership prospects to Turkey and the Western Balkans, smacks of double standards.

New Union members, most notably Poland, have become vocal supporters of Ukraine’s membership bid. In January the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the union’s executive bodies to give Ukraine “a clear European perspective.”

The current political crisis in Europe, however, has dealt a severe blow to Ukraine’s hopes for speedy negotiations on accession. There is clearly no enthusiasm to admit another large and poor country within “old Europe.” Fears of future expansions were partially the reason behind the “no” votes on the European constitution in France and the Netherlands.

By admitting Ukraine the Union also runs the risk of alienating Russia, its key strategic partner, which is worried about its diminishing influence over its “near abroad.” As Le Monde and Figaro commented after the failure of the French referendum, the European crisis, which may suspend future enlargements indefinitely, plays nicely into Russian interests in the post-Soviet space. “It is clear that Ukraine’s accession chances are practically zero … while Russian pressures [on Ukraine] will undoubtedly increase,” Ukrainian analyst Alexei Kolomets said (Le Figaro, June 4). Ukraine’s almost total energy dependence on Russia complicates relations between the two countries.

Slow Economic Reforms

Before European Union talks can even begin, the new Ukrainian leadership needs to prove that it is serious about reforms and set itself realistic goals such as receiving market-economy status and joining the World Trade Organization, necessary steps for future talks on membership. The new leadership is also eager to attract foreign investment, whose level has been extremely low for a country of Ukraine’s economic potential, and which is urgently needed to make up for a sharply slowing economy and recent increases in social spending.

Meeting these initial goals will not be easy. Years of failed transition have resulted in entrenched oligarchic structures and widespread corruption. According to the latest report by Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International, Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranked at 122 out of 146 countries surveyed. The shadow economy accounts for 57 percent of G.D.P., as estimated recently by Prime Minister Tymoshenko (Zerkalo Nedeli, June 25 to July 1).

During the elections Yushchenko promised to review the privatizations of firms sold below market prices under the previous regime. A widely popular idea (supported by 70 percent of the population according to Zerkalo Nedeli), the revision of shady privatization deals is also extremely controversial. How many firms will be reviewed, under what criteria, and according to what procedure? These are questions that Ukraine’s leaders still need to answer in order to lend transparency to the process. Tymoshenko originally mentioned 3000 companies, although this number was later reduced to “only a few dozen” by Yushchenko. Adding to the confusion, the existence of a “List of 29” companies was repeatedly confirmed and denied by government officials. The uncertainties surrounding the privatization issue have hurt the business climate, made potential investors uneasy, and cast a shadow over the new leadership’s image. “The impression of incompetence will linger,” warned The Economist (June 16).

The new government also came under strong criticism for a decision to cap gasoline prices, “an example of flagrant, Soviet-style interference in the economy,” according to The Kyiv Post (May 17). Yushchenko revoked the law, amid rumors that he had asked for the resignation of Tymoshenko, who favors stronger state control over economic policy. The clashes between the president and the prime minister, which are expected to increase before the 2006 parliamentary elections, are a further cause of concern for outside observers. “The state leadership and government now comprise divergent forces with divergent ideological premises, and they are pulling in divergent directions … [Yushchenko] has been an inspiration, but I am not sure that he has been a leader,” James Sherr, of the U.K. Defense Ministry, said in an interview for Den (June 14).

A special economic forum on Ukraine (June 16-17) was organized to show foreign investors that the country has embarked on a market-friendly course. In a well-timed move, the government signed a memorandum on guarantees for property rights to calm fears of mass “re-nationalization.” Yushchenko promised that the review of privatizations would be taken to the courts, and out of politics. He also described Ukraine as a new “Klondike,” emphasizing its proximity to the Union and its economic potential.

Will this be enough to recover the trust of investors? “Many in the audience had heard empty rhetoric for over a decade from Kuchma’s administration and now expected action,” commented Taras Kuzio of the Jamestown Foundation. The consensus among observers is that the new leadership is on the right course, but that the situation in Ukraine is still uncertain. “The investment climate is really bad. It stinks. But it has recently started to improve and the government is the first to acknowledge that it’s not good and try to improve it. In the first four months of its term, we see significant small steps showing that the investment climate is improving,” Olivier Descamps, of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said in an interview published at the World Economic Forum’s Web site. “Corruption, a poor regulatory environment, unpredictability of government economic policy and a lack of an independent judiciary” were cited as the biggest obstacles to business in Ukraine at the forum.

At the end of the forum, Ukraine was presented with a 10-step action plan for urgent reforms to improve its investment climate. On June 22, however, the Ukrainian Parliament rejected a government package of laws necessary for W.T.O. membership, jeopardizing the country’s goal to join the organization by the end of 2005. Despite Yushchenko’s appeals, the adoption of the crucial legislation was further postponed on July 5, when the Socialists and Communists blocked it.

Dealing With the Past

The investigation of crimes committed in the Kuchma era is another priority of the new Ukrainian authorities. Among many potential cases, two stand out for their symbolic value.

The most infamous one, the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000, has become synonymous with the criminality of the previous regime. There were, naturally, high expectations that the case would be solved quickly under Yushchenko. The slow progress on this issue is making many impatient. “The first actions of rebellion began with this name [Gongadze]. They ended up with Victor Yushchenko’s name and resulted in a victory. So it’s high time the third president of Ukraine recalled the hackneyed word ‘duty,’” wrote Ukrayinska Pravda (Feb. 22), the online newspaper founded by Gongadze. Recently, two suspects admitted to the killing; another is on the wanted list. The case is to be brought to the courts in July. Finding the physical killers, however, is only the first step in solving the case. What the Ukrainian public wants to know is who ordered the killings, and why? Former president Kuchma has also been implicated in the murder of the opposition journalist.

Secondly, there is the alleged poisoning of Yushchenko himself, which is currently under investigation. The face of the president remains shockingly scarred from dioxin intake. Yushchenko recently expressed his confidence that “everybody will be caught” and revealed that a “lot of new information” has been found (Daily Telegraph, July 1). His disclosure that the poison was traced to a Ukrainian laboratory was seen as a conciliatory move towards President Vladimir V. Putin, although Russia’s role in the affair has not been ruled out yet. However, some authors are skeptical that the truth will ever come to light if Russian authorities, as many believe, were involved. “There is a strong tendency to slow down the case and keep it from its logical end. There are different reasons for that, but the main thing is realization that it will be extremely difficult to prosecute murderers and ‘customers’ without spoiling Ukrainian-Russian relations for decades. That’s why it’s quite possible that people responsible for Yushchenko’s poisoning won’t be found and tried whatever administration is at power” (Ukrayinska Pravda, June 6). A similar view was expressed in The Economist: “The need to preserve civility may explain why the poisoning that debilitated Mr. Yushchenko during the election campaign, and scars him still, has not yet been publicly solved: some sort of Russian connection is widely assumed in Kiev” (June 16).

The two cases remain as crucial tests for the new leadership’s commitment to justice and the fight against corruption and crime in Ukraine.

Yushchenko has proven to be a survivor. He has given hope to Ukraine, which has finally embarked on a route that most East-Central European countries chose fifteen years ago. Ukraine’s minister of health recently expressed optimism about the president’s health and Ukraine’s future: “I would like to stress once again that the Viktor Yushchenko’s face will be recovering along with the renaissance of Ukraine. We are now witnessing these improvements — whether it is the Ukraine’s perception in the world, or the reaction to the foreign visits by the president; we also see it in the eyes of the Ukrainians which reflect the hope for the better future” (ForUm, June 3). The recovery has clearly started. One can only hope that it is speedy. Otherwise the Ukrainian electorate might turn against its present heroes.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Zornitsa Stoyanova-Yerburgh.