You could have been forgiven, at least before Sunday, for not realising that Ukraine was in the throes of an election. You could have been forgiven yesterday all over again if your eyes had glazed over at the result.
Voting this weekend for the third time in three years, Ukrainians produced the same old three-way split. Last night, Julia Tymoshenko, the blond millionairess with the folksy plait, was still fighting it out for the last decimal points with Viktor Yanukovych – the supposed Russian fifth columnist and villain of the Orange revolution. The party of Viktor Yushchenko, sombre hero of that popular uprising and now President, languished in third place.
What are we to make of this, all those of us who applauded the Orange revolution from the sidelines? Is it not frustrating that, even at the third time of voting, Ukraine still cannot resolve its contradictions? Essentially it remains divided between its reformists and its conservatives, between its eastern and its western halves, between those drawn by Tymoshenko's personal magnetism and those who are frankly scared of it.
It can be argued that, almost three years on, there is still a majority for the Orange revolutionaries. After all, the combined vote for Tymoshenko and Yushchenko easily outweighed that for Yanukovych and the Communists, however the last decimal points divide. Ukraine seems to have been spared the dreaded Thermidor. But the awkward truth is that more than one in three Ukrainian voters have still not bought into the Orange revolution, pretty much the same proportion as before. And it is probably time to get used to the idea that they won't – or at least not without more proof that the ideas and rhetoric of that largely imported populism will not pose a threat to their interests.
Outside Ukraine, expectations of the Orange revolution were always too high, just as the Western response to the three-way stalemate at parliamentary elections 18 months ago was unnecessarily gloomy. That the outcome of those elections was essentially confirmed by Sunday's vote shows that it is finally time to accept Ukraine as it is, rather than as the West's many ideologues wish it were.
Our response to Ukraine, as to any country, needs to be governed by realism. This is no more than any independent, sovereign country deserves. Ukraine is not a vassal state to be pushed and pulled between rival blocs.
There were never any grounds for believing that, after less than 20 years of disentangling itself economically and psychologically from the defunct Soviet Union, Ukraine would soon qualify to join the European Union. And while the United States might once have had an interest in fast-tracking Ukraine into Nato, it was simply foolish to imagine Ukrainians themselves wholeheartedly embracing the idea. They did not need any fresh exposure to Russian pressure to know that membership of the Western defence bloc was not necessarily in Ukraine's national interests. All they had to do was look at the map.
This is not to argue that Ukraine will be, still less should be, under Russia's thumb. It is rather to say that, with a population of more than 46 million, divided 70-30 between Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers, it is in a rather different position from the more homogenous countries that recently joined Nato and the EU. With developed industry, potentially prosperous agriculture and no shortage of space, it will be strong enough in time to choose its alliances. For the one-third of voters who repeatedly choose the party of Viktor Yanukovych, it is the US, not Russia, that seems to pose the greater threat.
Nor is there any reason to expect this to change. The latest elections show that attitudes, even in the volatile world of Ukrainian domestic politics, have remained remarkably stable. The failure of either the US or the EU to pick up the tab for its gas supplies when Russia raised prices closer to world levels demonstrated to many Ukrainians the fair-weather nature of their new friends.
We can now expect a lengthy period of bargaining, perhaps even court challenges, as the main players seek to maximise their advantage. The mood is a world away from the outward-looking idealism of the crowds that thronged Kiev's Democracy Square. But the more close elections they fight, the more Ukraine's politicians will understand that, if they are to be at all relevant, they will have to allow some democratic give and take; the more, too, Ukraine's friends and neighbours will understand that the Orange revolution produced not a clone of Estonia or even Poland, but a country that has a life increasingly its own.Reuse content