A Victory for Democracy in Ukraine?

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To most Western eyes, the political comeback of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych would seem to be a major setback for the celebrated Orange Revolution that brought President Viktor Yuschchenko to power in late 2004. It was the Russian-backed Yanukovych, leader of the eastern-leaning Party of the Regions (PR), who helped trigger the peaceful democratic uprising after initially winning a rigged Presidential election.

But thanks to his own political makeover and the internal squabbles of Yushchenko's once triumphant coalition, Yanukovych came Friday afternoon to the Supreme Rada, Ukraine’s National Legislature, to be confirmed as Ukraine’s new Premier — and, as a result of recent reforms, actually take over many of the Presidential powers of his onetime nemesis, Yushchenko. The flamboyant Yuliya Tymoshenko, Yuschchenko's own onetime revolutionary partner and prime minister and now leader of the parliament's Byut faction, decried “the sellout of the Orange Revolution" and pledged "stiff opposition” to the hatching coalition government of Yanukovych's PR faction and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine (OU) bloc.

Her sentiment may be shared by many shocked at the turn of events in Ukraine. But keen observers of government in the entire former Soviet Union argue it could also be seen as evidence of an unprecedented political maturity in the fledgling democracy. “The Orange Revolution was all about fair elections rather than individuals,” reminds Viktor Nebozhenko, an authoritative Kiev-based political analyst. For the first time ever in the region, Ukraine has both a President and a Premier elected in fair elections, with the first opportunity to learn what separation of powers really means.

And contrary to what some people might claim, the political intrigue that led to Yanukovych's reemergence is as much a part of democracy as fair elections, or for that matter, separation of powers. In the March parliamentary elections, Yanukovych’s PR won 32% of the vote fair and square. The Orange forces, badly split since Tymoshenko lost her Premiership last September in a feud with the OU, tried to re-build their winning coalition, along with the Socialst party, but Tymoshenko’s categorical condition was the Premiership.

Instead, in a sudden about-face, the Socialists formed a Coalition with the PR and the Communists. That left Yushchenko with the legal option of nominating the Coalition Leader Yanukovych, however distasteful to him, for Premier, or disbanding the Rada, which risked aggravating the nation’s already yawning split. With suspense growing — and with two pre-taped TV addresses to the nation, one proclaiming the Rada disbanded, the other one announcing the “Two-Viktors-One-Country” conciliatory formula — Yushchenko chose the last-minute compromise.

The terms of the National Unity pact he has forged with Yanukovych's coalition are discernable, however vague the wording: Yanukovych signed on to Ukraine’s moving closer politically to Europe, while Yushchenko agreed to improve cooperation with Russia — albeit only up to the point that would facilitate Ukraine’s trade with Russia, but won’t hurt Ukraine’s prospects for eventual WTO and EU membership. Both yielded on the divisive issue of Ukraine joining NATO: Yanukovych withdrew his avowed opposition to the move, while Yushchenko agreed to put the issue to a referendum. “Yanukovych has evolved since December 2004, while Tymoshenko mentally got stuck at the barricades,” comments Nebozhenko.

In tactical terms, Yushchenko smartly used Yanukovych to neutralize Tymoshenko, her blend of populism, radicalism and charisma perceived as a bigger threat. Now, however, he may be able to just as effectively use Tymoshenko's opposition status to keep Yanukovych in check, should the latter’s evolution fail to prove sufficiently deep. The backstabbing and strange alliances might not be pretty, but they sure beat street fights, or storming Parliaments by tanks. For that reason, it can be argued, the compromise that brought the two Viktors together in power is actually the triumph, not the defeat, of the Orange Revolution.