Tuesday, February 09, 2010

U-turn in Ukraine?

Viktor Yanukovich - the likely victor in the Ukrainian Presidential election- is not a Jeffersonian Democrat. He carries with him the air of the youthful hoodlum he once was- he served time in gaol as a young man. However Yulia Timoshenko- the defeated candidate is hardly a model democrat herself. It would be quite easy to throw up ones hands and say that Ukraine was a lost cause and that it has not escaped its terrible past.

Easy but wrong.

For one thing, the Presidential election has been given a clean bill of health by election observers. A clean election anywhere in the former Soviet Union is sufficiently rare to be celebrated. Neither is Ukraine likely to fall under the control of Russia, despite fears that it may do so. The fact is that the division of Ukraine has proven to be its saviour. No one party, region, or faction -still less a single individual- is able to control the country. All things must be negotiated, all things are political. On the one hand it creates a slow moving, quite badly governed state, with low level corruption endemic, on the other Ukraine is classified as free by Freedom House.

So Mr. Yanukovich, even if he wanted to deliver Ukraine to the Kremlin could not do so. He must govern by way of deal making and compromise, and for every die-hard pro-Putinista in Ukraine, there are probably three pro Europeans. The economy is now oriented to its prosperous Western neighbours, not its inefficient and truculent Eastern. However much Russia tries to project its will in K'yev, it finds that it must, like everyone else, cut a deal and negotiate, and in fact it has few things that are attractive to Ukrainians. Even the energy weapon is a two edged sword for Russia, for blackmailing Ukraine reminds the West of the importance of diversity of energy supply and diminishes Russia's reputation as a reliable supplier of energy.

Neither can Mr. Yanukovich, even if he wanted to, create a more authoritarian constitution and bend the Ukrainian people to his will. The local regions are powerful, and whether Russian or Ukrainian speaking, they will not easily cede power back to the centre. On top of that, creating a more centralised state could deliver Mr. Yanukovich into the hands of his political opponents, since the Orange Revolution, for all its disappointments, has shown that a President who oversteps the mark can be removed by the popular will.

So, in the end it is likely that it will be economics that is Ukraine's destiny: and that means a continued Western trajectory- whether or not the Kremlin or indeed Mr. Yanukovich want to stop this or not. In fact, there is some evidence that Mr. Yanukovich has learned plenty of lessons from the Orange revolution- which Ms. Timoshenko may not. One of the most obvious is to try to construct coalitions, which Mr. Yanukovich has already done to a degree with the outgoing President, Mr. Yushchenko. The second is the increasing use that Mr. Yanukovich makes of the Ukrainian rather than the Russian language. Like Ms. Timoshenko, Mr. Yanukovich learned Ukrainian as a second language, unlike her, he still stumbles over the language, but nevertheless, he increasingly uses Ukrainian in public. Although he has stated that he would like to see restrictions against Russian lifted, which would please the Kremlin, this is simply to put the issue on the agenda, not to actually enact change. Even in such relatively minor changes, Mr. Yanukovich will need to negotiate and not to decree.

So the mood music in Ukraine will change. Mr. Yanukovich is not a cultured nor notably intelligent figure. His thuggish demeanour and past will tell against him. However the Ukrainian people have freely elected him as their President. he may not be Thomas Jefferson, but in the end he doesn't need to be. The Ukrainians are asking for better governance, and that Mr. Yanukovich may yet be able to give.

The Western trajectory of Ukraine is secure. The rest is details. Even an undemocratic and unfree Russia can only negotiate for influence in a democratic and free Ukraine, it may not force the Ukrainians to act against their will. In the end, that is the final and the greatest triumph of the orange revolution.

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