Ukraine shows democracy's whims

Belarusians still look to Orange Revolution as model even as leader's party founders

March 28, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

KIEV, Ukraine -- Less than a year and a half ago, Viktor A. Yushchenko became president of Ukraine in a peaceful revolution and declared the beginning of a new political era that seemed destined to take firm hold and influence Ukraine's neighbors.

He has been proved right, even as democratic change has followed a course that Yushchenko and promoters of civil society didn't expect.

On Sunday, Yushchenko's party placed third in the first parliamentary elections since he became president. The party winning the largest bloc of seats was led by Viktor F. Yanukovych, leader of the "old guard" and the candidate whose fraudulent victory in the presidential election sparked Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

But the poor showing by Yushchenko's party means he has fulfilled the promise of the revolution: Ukraine now has a democracy.

This was a campaign in which candidates could travel, speak and advertise without constraints. The election did not have an outcome preordained by the government. Sporting an orange tie as he spoke Sunday at a polling station in central Kiev, Yushchenko said the vote marked "the first fair, democratic elections in Ukraine."

"Democratic elections," he said, "always mean victory."

In neighboring Belarus, thousands of people this month demonstrated in Minsk, the capital, to protest the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, in a vote the United States and the European Union said should be declared invalid.

Police attacked some protesters Saturday, arresting them along with an opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin. But demonstrators numbering in the thousands challenged Lukashenko. Thanks to Ukraine and Georgia, they knew that rallies could threaten autocratic governments.

Authorities in Belarus have done everything possible to prevent the country from following the path of Ukraine, while opposition activists are trying to follow precisely that path. Some activists who gathered on October Square in Minsk had also traveled to Kiev to taste democracy.

Using the Orange Revolution tent city as a model, opposition protesters camped out overnight. But there was a major difference in scale: 15,000 tents in Kiev, but only a few dozen in Minsk, protected by a ring of people standing with their arms linked. Police stormed the square after just four nights, clearing it in less than 15 minutes.

Belarus is not Ukraine, but the desire for democracy is there and seems to be growing.

"Ukraine is a key factor of change in the post-Soviet world," said Vladyslav Kaskiv, head of the political wing of the civic coalition Pora, a significant force in Ukraine's Orange Revolution. "The influence of Ukraine is enormous."

The parliamentary results here highlighted Yushchenko's troubled first year in office and that Ukraine remains torn between Europe and Russia. They also called into question whether Yushchenko would be able to forge ahead with plans to enter NATO and join the European Union. But most of all they underscore the reality that democracy does not come easily.

In a way, it turns out, revolution itself was the easy part.

"The Orange Revolution was just a first step, and we realize that," said Alexander Lomako, an activist with the youth group Opora.

"We don't need revolutions," said Vladimir Malinkovich, director of the International Institute of Social and Political Studies in Kiev. "We need reforms."

Since becoming president in January of last year, Yushchenko has a mixed record. The press is freer, civic activism is flourishing and, at the expense of the president's own power, more power is now in the hands of parliament. Under constitutional reforms, it will be the job of the new parliament - not Yushchenko - to appoint the prime minister.

Yushchenko has been criticized for lacking a coherent plan for reform and blamed for rising inflation. Last fall, Yushchenko dismissed his Cabinet including his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, a charismatic, popular figure, to try to end squabbling within the government. Tymoshenko organized her own party, which placed second in Sunday's vote. Negotiations were under way yesterday between her party and the president's on forming a coalition government in which Tymoshenko might again serve as prime minister.

Kaskiv, the activist from the civil coalition Pora, was another candidate disappointed Sunday. A former adviser to the president, Kaskiv headed a new party spun off of Pora, but it failed to reach the 3 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

If his party's showing was a letdown, it was not an all-out defeat. Ukraine has already made an irrevocable choice in favor of democratic ideals, he said.

Ukraine's post-revolution experience represents a kind of "crash course in democracy," he said in an interview. While Yushchenko made mistakes, Kaskiv criticized some of the president's former supporters for giving up too easily on the work of change.

"People think they replaced the bad people with good people and now they can go home and have fun," Kaskiv said before the vote. "This cannot be done in one day. This is what we call the process of installing civil society.

"Feeling useless as an observer to democratic elections is a magnificent thing," Thjis Berman, a member of the European Parliament, said yesterday. He served as an election observer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and declared Sunday's vote free and fair. "They took democracy in their own hands, and they're not willing to hand it over to anybody else."

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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