In 2004, the world watched as the Orange Revolution unfolded in Ukraine, pitting an insurgent, pro-Western opposition, led by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, against a pro-Russian autocratic government, represented by Viktor Yanukovych. After months of protest, Yushchenko became president in January 2005. Last month, the three faced off against one another in the first round of presidential elections. Yushchenko lost badly, with Yanukovych and Tymoshenko coming out on top, receiving 35 percent and 25 percent of the vote, respectively. A runoff election between the two will be held on February 7 to determine Ukraine’s next president. For both better and worse, this election marks a sharp break from 2004: Ukraine is now less dominated by a choice between East and West, yet more mired in rampant cynicism and fears of institutional and political chaos.

Since 2004, Ukraine has evolved into a functioning democracy. Overt government interference in the media has ended, and elections are now much more transparent. The first round of voting demonstrated that access to state financial and “administrative resources” matters less than it once did: under former President Leonid Kuchma, who held office between 1994 and 2004, politicians needed government support to gain the necessary patronage, organizational resources, and media attention to mount a serious campaign. Access to the state’s spoils was a sine qua non for political viability.

This time around, with Ukraine in the middle of an economic crisis, incumbency proved to be more of a liability than an asset. Yushchenko was unable to use his office to manufacture support -- he ended up in fifth place with just five percent of the vote, surely among the worst performances by an incumbent in modern democratic history. Tymoshenko, who as prime minister has been responsible for managing the economy over the last two years, received enough support to advance into the second round but fewer votes than her party received in the 2007 parliamentary elections when she was out of government.

Far less is at stake for both Ukraine and the West in this election than was the case in the 2004 contest, which offered a choice between Yanukovych, who was openly backed by then Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Yushchenko, who strongly advocated integration with the West. The Kremlin provided significant financial assistance to Yanukovych, while the United States and European countries supported the opposition by pressuring the Kuchma regime, giving grants to political NGOs, and dispatching a large number of election observers. As Ukrainians headed to the polls, the country’s geopolitical orientation as well as the fate of its democracy seemed to hang in the balance.

Today, as in 2004, the candidates differ in their approaches toward Russia and the West. Tymoshenko is slightly closer to the West than is Yanukovych: her party, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, is a member of the center-right European People’s Party, and she supports EU membership for Ukraine. She has shown greater support for NATO membership than Yanukovych, calling for a referendum to decide the issue. In contrast, Yanukovych explicitly opposes NATO membership, and his Party of Regions is officially allied with Putin’s United Russia party.

But the two sides are much closer than they were six years ago. Their policy differences are relatively minor and unlikely to affect Ukraine’s cooperation with Russia and the West. Given the European Union’s enlargement fatigue, Ukranian membership is now a distant prospect at best, no matter who is in charge of the country. Meanwhile, polls have consistently shown that a solid majority of Ukrainians oppose NATO membership, and French and German opposition to Ukraine’s inclusion have tabled the issue for the foreseeable future. Finally, both candidates advocate close ties to Russia -- a position supported by a large majority of Ukrainians.

Unlike in 2004, neither Russia nor the West has taken sides. Although Putin has shown open disdain for Yushchenko, he has repeatedly expressed a willingness to work with either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko. For Tymoshenko, this is a remarkable turnaround. In 2004, when the Russian government was doing everything it could to undermine the Ukrainian opposition, she faced criminal charges in Russia for allegedly bribing officials in Russia’s ministry of defense. However, in Yalta last November, Putin met with Tymoshenko and offered major concessions on gas contracts, suggesting that their cooperation had led to “more stable and strengthened” relations between the two countries. At the same time, Western powers have taken a strenuously neutral stance in the election, both officially and unofficially. In fact, the West has an interest in a strong relationship between Ukraine and Russia as a way to ensure stable distribution of Russian gas to Western Europe.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this election and the previous one is that far fewer see this contest as a moral struggle. Ukrainian voters appear to be much more cynical about the two main candidates than they were in 2004. One commentator in the Ukrainian press described the election as a choice between “rape and robbery.” Although opposition forces gained power in 2004 by campaigning against corruption, Ukraine still remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world, in the same league as Cameroon, Russia, and Zimbabwe. As a result, few voters have much confidence in either side’s ability to significantly change the country’s course. Combined, the top two candidates obtained just over 50 percent of all votes, compared to almost 80 percent in the first round in 2004.

Regardless of who wins, unfortunately, democracy in Ukraine may take a hit. Yanukovych, who orchestrated massive vote fraud in eastern Ukraine in 2004, can hardly be expected to safeguard the country’s democratic institutions. Although Tymoshenko battled against authoritarian rule in 2004, she now appears intent on centralizing political control. Her calls to rein in the nation’s oligarchs, bankers, and corrupt politicians have led some to fear that she will selectively use the law to go after political enemies.

Most important, both candidates -- in contrast to Yushchenko -- have access to strong effective political party structures with the potential capacity to control the legislature. Strong parties are typically associated with strong democracy. Yet in the absence of countervailing forces -- such as rule of law, civil society, or powerful external democratizing pressure -- powerful and cohesive parties may also be used to monopolize control over state institutions. If either Tymoshenko or Yanukovych are able to form cohesive parliamentary majorities after coming to power, they will be well positioned to bring on a subordinate prime minister, pack the court system with allies, and politicize the state to a degree unseen under Yushchenko, whose party has been relatively weak.

Democracy might suffer more under Tymoshenko because her party is highly centralized under her personal control. It has been said that Tymoshenko combines the backroom talents of Joseph Stalin during his rise to power with the public speaking skills and charisma of Leon Trotsky. This made her a potent ally of the Orange Revolution but also a potential threat to democracy if she gains the presidency. In contrast, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions is a loose and often divided coalition of oligarchic interests, which would limit his control over the legislature.

But any efforts to monopolize political control will ultimately be limited by the polarized political climate that separates Ukraine’s eastern and western regions. Yanukovych draws most of his support from the east, while Tymoshenko and Yushchenko receive most of their votes from the western and central parts of the country. Whoever comes to power next will face strenuous opposition from one region or another. This means that even if Ukraine’s democracy is tarnished, the country’s political system will never resemble the more authoritarian regimes in neighboring Belarus or Russia.

Indeed, Ukraine is threatened less by creeping authoritarianism than by increasing political and institutional chaos. There has been no chairman of the High Administrative Court -- the body that oversees potential election disputes -- since last December, when the term of the previous chair ended. At this point, two judges -- Olexander Pasenyuk, who has ties to Yushchenko, and Mykola Syrosh, supported by Tymoshenko -- are claiming the post. To make matters more confusing, in late January, the Ukrainian legislature voted to oust the interior minister, Yuri Lutsenko, a Tymoshenko ally. Tymoshenko promptly reappointed Lutsenko as acting minister, a move that was challenged in court by the Party of Regions. Thus, should the upcoming election be disputed, there will be few legitimate authorities to disentangle any legal challenges.

Such challenges are quite possible, since the second round of voting is likely to be close. Yanukovych was able to gain a significant lead in the first round of voting because the so-called Orange vote was fragmented among Tymoshenko, Yushchenko, and a smattering of other candidates in western Ukraine. Those voters who did not back Tymoshenko are unlikely to switch their support to Yanukovych; the question is how many will now back Tymoshenko or sit the vote out entirely.

No matter the outcome, this presidential election cannot be described as a battle between good and bad political forces, as it seemed in 2004. Above all, the fate of Ukraine’s democracy will hinge on preventing either side -- whether it is pro-Russian or pro-Western -- from gaining too much power.

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  • LUCAN WAY is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His book, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, co-authored with Steven Levitsky, will be published this year by Cambridge University Press.
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