The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
On the 9th day of the month of Thermidor, five years after the storming of the Bastille, the French Revolution's radicals were ousted by more moderate forces. Nonviolent civic revolutions have had their own Thermidors as well, and this pattern is what some have identified in last month's dismissal of the Ukrainian government by President Viktor Yushchenko, less than a year after reformers there toppled the previous regime. In fact, however, Yushchenko's actions are best understood not as a retreat from reform but rather as an effort to put the country back on the original path of last fall's Orange Revolution.
Many people lay claim to the legacy of Ukraine's nonviolent civic struggle, but there is little doubt that the Orange Revolution was about three things: democracy, transparency, and an economy based on competition. Indeed, one of the leading organized forces advocating change last winter, the Pora youth movement, consisted of thousands of young activists driven by a belief in liberal politics and free-market principles.
In keeping with this spirit, the recent government reshuffling reflected Yushchenko's frustration with a stalemate in his coalition government that had produced a rudderless economic policy, part statist, part liberal. The charismatic prime minister whom Yushchenko dismissed, Yulia Tymoshenko, claimed she was a modern, market-oriented leader but in fact had pursued a moderately populist agenda, pushing for large increases in social spending. Although her policies to increase pensions and state-sector wages by 80 percent, impose price controls on commodities, and support widespread reprivatization were popular, they contributed to a slowdown in economic growth from 13 percent in 2004 to a projected 5.5 percent in 2005.
Endless backbiting and mixed economic signals had scared off investors at home and abroad. After matters came to a head with charges and countercharges within his Orange coalition about judicial tampering in reprivatization cases and alleged inner-circle corruption, President Yushchenko chose to act. He asserted his mandate as the country's legitimately elected leader and replaced Tymoshenko with Yuri Yekhanurov, a quiet technocrat with a reputation for decency and efficiency, whose appointment was confirmed by support from nearly two-thirds of parliament. The president also sacked Petro Poroshenko, a multimillionaire who had been his confidant and a financial pillar of his election campaign.
Tymoshenko has responded to the sacking with sharp attacks, asserting that Yushchenko is making common cause with representatives from the old regime. But the president appears to be acting to return the country to more normal and predictable governance. Worried about how to deal with past corrupt privatizations, he has chosen to restrict reprivatization to a handful of the most egregious examples of cronyism and outright corruption. (Ironically, Tymoshenko, concerned by the slowdown, had herself recently been making a midcourse correction by moving toward more market-oriented and investment-friendly policy. But her unwillingness to agree to a reduction in the number of her allies in the coalition government sealed her fate.)
Some might argue that the political upheaval in Ukraine is a sign of disarray and instability. But nothing could be further from the truth. Yushchenko's appointment of the pro-EU Oleh Rybachuk as chief of staff and of the capable and steady Yekhanurov as prime minister should reassure Ukraine's entrepreneurial classes and the international business community. At the same time, his decision to remove several aides accused of corruption--or at the very least tainted by perceptions of conflicts of interests--is likely to win wide support among Ukraine's citizens.
Once a technocrat himself, Yushchenko has emerged from several assassination attempts and the high-stakes civic struggles of last year a changed man. He is determined to leave his mark on Ukraine and not to squander the Orange Revolution's mandate. In this. he deserves understanding and support, including from the United States and the rest of the West. With Russia drifting toward authoritarianism and Belarus already a hard-line dictatorship, change in much of the former Soviet Union will be influenced in great measure by whether Ukraine succeeds in transforming itself into a modern European state. And infighting in the upper reaches of the Ukrainian state had put that important aim at risk.
Yushchenko's decisive actions have brought significant criticism from some of his former revolutionary allies. But in the end, it will be up to Ukraine's people to decide who is right. Ukraine will hold parliamentary elections in March 2006. At that time, voters will signal whether they prefer Yushchenko's more business-friendly liberal economics or the more socially oriented policies of his erstwhile ally Tymoshenko. In all likelihood, neither of the two blocs behind the two leaders that lay claim to the legacy of the Orange Revolution will prevail. This means that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko could well reemerge as allies again.
No matter how events play out in Kiev, one thing is certain. The fact that Ukraine's people will in the end decide their own future is a testimony to the durability of last fall's nonviolent people-power struggle.