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Ukraine’s peaceful revolution turned sour because its leader was not ruthless enough
Feb 11th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
FIVE years ago in Kiev, as the snow fell, rock bands played and hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated for free elections and against corruption, Ukraine seemed poised to be transformed from a post-Soviet oligarchy into a modern democracy. Yet on February 7th the disgraced loser of 2004-05, Viktor Yanukovich (pictured right), won the presidency at the second attempt—even if Yulia Tymoshenko, his opponent (pictured left), is reluctant to concede (see article).
The election result feels like an extraordinary betrayal of the orange revolution. Yet the seeds of this outcome were planted even as the orange throng triumphed. Ukraine is a case study in how to entrench the gains of revolution—and how to squander them.
Too quiet by half
The revolution was mercifully peaceful; but it wasn’t free. On the contrary, like all such upheavals it was hugely costly, not only or principally in money. Viktor Yushchenko, the now-outgoing president, was swept to power but incurred heavy debts: to his allies, chief among them Ms Tymoshenko, heroine of the orange crowds; to other politicians, such as the Socialists, with whom he cut deals; to the businessmen who bankrolled his campaign; and to his enemies, who extracted concessions in exchange for going quietly.
In office, Mr Yushchenko paid up. He made Ms Tymoshenko prime minister (a position she held twice). Alas, the qualities that had made her a formidable revolutionary proved a liability in government. She was relentlessly self-promoting, short-termist and populist, as for example when she imposed price caps on fuel. Meanwhile the Socialists were put in charge of privatisation. Unsavoury businessmen were given jobs in the presidential administration. And the "bandits” whom Mr Yushchenko had promised to punish for various crimes—not least the poisoning that disfigured him before the election of 2004 and the attempted rigging of the outcome—remained free. One of the alleged villains, Mr Yanukovich, became prime minister in 2006-07 and will now be president.
Some of this was unavoidable. Mr Yushchenko faced a chaotic and venal parliament, a messy constitution and a cadre of politicians whose view of the proper authority of any given office depends on their chances of occupying it. Some of the compromises he made were necessary, if distasteful. It would be wrong for any leader in so fragile a country as Ukraine to renege on all the pledges he makes to avoid conflict. Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia offers a good example of the opposite danger—of how what can initially seem like satisfyingly firm government can slip into over-mighty rule.
All the same, Mr Yushchenko repaid his debts too generously. Corruption among his cronies earned his administration almost as bad a reputation for graft as the regime it replaced—confirming the belief of many, especially in eastern Ukraine (Mr Yanukovich’s stronghold), that all the pre-revolutionary talk of cleaner government was so much self-serving cant. The failure to punish almost anyone for the serious crimes Mr Yushchenko had denounced, or to overhaul the courts, led to disillusion among his supporters and boldness among his enemies. The orange coalition was plagued by rivalries and contradictions, collapsing on several occasions under their own weight. Especially at the beginning, when circumstances were propitious, Mr Yushchenko should have been tougher.
Instead, his presidency was crippled by his revolutionary debts. Rather than curing the fractious pathologies of Ukrainian politics, Mr Yushchenko succumbed to them, failing to build the institutions that underpin democracy. The people and economy of Ukraine have been the losers.
It isn’t all bad. Ms Tymoshenko appears to be contesting Mr Yanukovich’s victory. Yet by recognising it, as she surely must eventually, she could still confirm what had seemed one of the revolution’s gains: (relatively) free elections, respected by the losers. And by relinquishing her post as prime minister and going into opposition, Ms Tymoshenko could help Ukraine to avoid the paralysis and in-fighting that have plagued it for the past five years. The rancorous cohabitations between her and Mr Yushchenko, and between the two Viktors, never worked. Ukraine badly needs a united government and a constructive opposition if it is finally to deal with its daunting economic problems.
And, in other ways, Ukraine remains a better and more civilised country than it was before the revolution. It has freer media and a more assertive citizenry. But those achievements have been won by the orange crowds, not by the politicians they once lionised. Peaceful revolution can be a wonderful thing. But the lesson of Ukraine is that, afterwards, their leaders need to continue the struggle.
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