A Counter-Revolution in Ukraine?

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As Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko continues his brutal crackdown against protesters opposed to his internationally condemned fraudulent election victory, Europe's last dictator seems to some observers to be running scared; he only showed his face to his countrymen on Tuesday, and has already postponed his previously planned inauguration this coming Friday. But if Lukashenko is indeed feeling increasingly painted into a corner, perhaps he can take comfort from recent elections in nearby Ukraine, where at least one-third of the electorate retain strong support for the same post-Soviet Moscow-favored autocratic leader the voters rejected just 16 months ago.

Who knows — maybe Lukashenko will even one day find himself being voted into power in a legitimate election again, the way he did back in his first race in 1994. After all, a good portion of people will always prefer guaranteed rations and order to the messiness and uncertainty of freedom. That in many respects explains the amazing tenacity and comeback of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who lost the Presidency in December of 2004 to reformer Viktor Yushchenko after the people revolted against a clearly fraudulent initial election in a non-violent surge of people power. In this past weekend's parliamentary elections, Yanukovych's Party of the Regions (PR) led with over 31% of the votes, while Yushchenko's Our Ukraine (OU) party had a humiliating third-place finish.

Yanukovych's impressive showing may have been a surprise to Westerners who thought his time and eastward-looking agenda had come and gone, but it wasn't to him. Over the past year and a half, he has remade himself, hiring Western spin doctors rather than wasting funds on hapless Russian advisers. He became available to the media, and toned down his allegiance to Moscow, while still emphasizing the need to move to Europe "together with Russia." He also promised to ease the burden of high gas prices by re-entering the United Economic Space with Russia.

During those same 16 months since the victory of the so-called Orange Revolution, the new regime of President Yuschenko and his prime minister, the flamboyant Yuliya Tymoshenko, has delivered on many of its promises, but also been plagued by infighting and mutual accusations of corruption. On the one hand, business enjoyed the lifting of its tax burden and much red tape, ordinary folks got better wages and pensions, and the freedom of speech and the upheld rule of law made free elections feasible. But at the same time, those achievements have been undercut by periodic shortages of fuel and food and soaring inflation.

Even more harmful were allegations — never dealt with by the President in any convincing way — that his son Andriy paid for his notoriously high lifestyle of posh cars, penthouse apartments and expensive parties with revenues from Orange revolution symbols, patented in his name as trademarks and sold at the market like hot pies. Yushchenko only added insult to injury last summer, when he lashed out at the journalist Serhiy Leshchenko, 25, who wrote an expose of the presidential son. "The most amazing thing is that Yushchenko himself co-authored my story — and failed to realize this," Leshchenko told me at the time. "It was only due to his Orange revolution that now a journalist can write such stories in Ukraine — and stay alive."

The worst blow came last September, when Yushchenko and Tymoshenko traded accusations of betrayal of the Orange revolution. The entire Orange administration imploded within a couple of days: Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko, and then fired his lieutenants who were most involved in the war of words with her.

With the Orange coalition in tatters, the rifts are now being played out at the ballot box, where Tymoshenko's eponymous party came in second behind Yanukovych. The new parliament turns out to be as split as society is — which, among many other things, is a proof of an honest and fair election. Since no single party, including the big winner Yanukovych, has the majority, a coalition government, with all the accompanying horse trading and compromises, will likely be formed.

It's also proof of how messy democracy can be. In Belarus, just several days before President Alexander Lukashenko ordered his storm troopers to meet the flowers and colored balloons of a peaceful people's march with clubs, tear gas and stun grenades, I happened to overhear a Western observer. The gentleman, apparently Italian, was admiring the impeccable organization of Lukashenko's election: all so orderly, just like in Switzerland, he enthused. Well, yes, order is admirable — didn't the trains run on time under Mussolini, which doesn't always happen in Italy under democracy? That's the eternal problem: democracy is messy, dictatorship is orderly and solemn — not unlike a cemetery.