How not to run a revolution

December 30, 2005|By LIONEL BEEHNER

Country after country in the former Soviet sphere has held up Ukraine as its model for democratic upheaval, down to the campaign tactic of adopting a dopey color. Why?

A year after the Orange Revolution, polls show that most Ukrainians are dissatisfied with the direction of their country. The economy has tanked. Corruption remains endemic. And the reformist Cabinet was sacked in September for political infighting. Things are so bad that the party of Viktor F. Yanukovich, the pro-Kremlin stooge who lost last year's election runoff, has emerged as Ukraine's most popular political group.

So what happened? Many things, some of which offer clues for opposition leaders in nearby states such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Belarus to avoid suffering similar fates.

First: Don't promise too much.

Viktor A. Yushchenko, the hero of the Orange Revolution, stood on stage in November in Maidan, Kiev's downtown square, and promised to create millions of new jobs, to put "the bandits in jail" and to place Ukraine on the fast track toward European Union accession. He succeeded in none of the above.

"So many people had high expectations but are now disappointed," says Iryna Chupryna, a member of the youth movement Pora that backed Mr. Yushchenko last year. "The government still has the mentality of the old Soviet regime, with its lying and corruption."

Mr. Yushchenko has urged patience, reiterating that it takes more than a year to completely transform a poorly managed country of 48 million people.

Second rule: Don't be soft.

The most commonly heard complaint in Ukraine one year after is not about corruption or the economy - it's about Mr. Yushchenko's personality. Ukrainians say their leader, however well-intentioned, may be too soft for post-Soviet politics and unfit to take on their country's legions of corrupt politicians and oligarchs.

Specifically, Mr. Yushchenko has failed to find those responsible for poisoning him last year, which left his face badly pockmarked. He also has made only ham-fisted attempts to bring to justice the killers of Georgi Gongadze, the muckraking journalist murdered in 2000.

Third: Know your enemy.

Mr. Yushchenko came to power surrounded by an assortment of politicians from various parties -the so-called Orange Coalition - many with motives having nothing to do with reforming Ukraine. Inevitably, their egos would clash as allegations of corruption surfaced.

"What has disillusioned and disappointed our people have been the differences within the Orange camp, which were received fairly traumatically by our citizens," Mr. Yushchenko recently told Newsweek. In September, he heeded the words of the 6th century B.C. Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, and fired his Cabinet.

Fourth rule: Don't give the keys to your $60,000 BMW to your son.

Mr. Yushchenko was panned in the press after his 19-year-old son, Andrey, was seen cruising around Kiev in a tricked-out BMW over the summer. The president's overreaction - ridiculing the Ukrainian press for covering the non-story - only made matters worse.

Fifth rule: Don't forget the past.

Mr. Yushchenko has been too forgiving of crimes committed by his predecessors' cronies. For instance, he tried to ignore past privatization deals dished out at basement prices. Worse, he backed a new bill that would grant immunity to politicians for past crimes, even Ukraine's notoriously clannish local deputies.

His softness on corruption has only emboldened the now-opposition party of Yulia Tymoshenko, the flamboyant oil-tycoon-turned-populist-turned-prime minister-turned-public-icon. She hopes to reclaim the post of prime minister in March when voters elect a parliament.

Sixth rule: Don't pander to populist measures.

Immediately after assuming power in January, Mr. Yushchenko, riding a wave of popular support, decided to raise government wages and pensions. The move, however well-intentioned, stung Ukraine's economy by doubling its debt. Inflation soon kicked in, as the gross domestic product plummeted from 12 percent growth in 2004 to below 4 percent. Not surprisingly, Ukrainians' euphoria quickly soured.

Mr. Yushchenko has since found his footing. He helped orchestrate the recent $4.8 billion blockbuster sale of the Kryvorizhstal mill to Mittal Steel. He has also cut back on the country's notorious red tape that hindered small businesses. He has stood up to Russia's attempts to jack up the price of Ukraine's natural gas. This month, Ukraine was finally awarded free-market status by Europe, paving the way for Kiev's bid to join the World Trade Organization and, eventually, the EU.

As voters in former Soviet republics go to the polls in the years ahead, the same question invariably arises: Could a color revolution be in their future?

While it's welcoming that Ukraine's Orange Revolution has instilled hope in opposition candidates across the region, it would be wise for aspiring revolutionaries not to blindly follow Mr. Yushchenko's path to Western-style democracy. That requires having a clear plan in place for the day after the revolution, not just a color to rally around for the day of the revolution.

Lionel Beehner is a staff writer with the Council on Foreign Relations' Web site. His e-mail is lbeehner@cfr.org.

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