Mary Dejevsky: Ukraine is at last throwing off the shackles of the Cold War

This election was fought by and for Ukrainians, with no outside meddling

Tuesday 09 February 2010 01:00

The last time Viktor Yanukovych featured prominently in the Western media was more than five years ago. When the drama of Ukraine's Orange Revolution was at its height, he played the villain. With his power base in the east, his clumsy style and his compromised victory, he was the Kremlin-backed devil to the angelic duo of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

This weekend, Yanukovych narrowly won the run-off to succeed Yushchenko as President. His rival was the same Tymoshenko – la Pasionaria of those revolutionary days. Assuming her threatened legal challenge fails – and international observers judged the first round of the election to be about as free and fair as an election can get – Yanukovych will have first crack at forming a government. Already pessimists inside and outside the country are lamenting the failure of the Orange revolution, denouncing Russia's revenge, and predicting the re-absorption of Ukraine into the Russian orbit.

Such an approach should be scotched before it is translated into policies that would be damaging for all concerned. Yes, five years on, the Orange Revolution has been a disappointment. The young people who thronged Kiev's snow-swept Independence Square inspired admiration around the world. It would have taken a rare political leader to meet their sky-high expectations.

And Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were quick to disappoint. They fell out almost at once, and the country's parliament degenerated into a fractious talking shop. Ukraine was on a political and financial slide well before the global economic crisis struck. When I visited last spring, the political mood was sour; the young activists of 2004-5 had retreated into further study, private business, or nothing very much at all.

But the many different roads of disillusionment with the Orange Revolution do not lead automatically back to Moscow. What has been most striking, and most hopeful, about the 2010 election is the extent to which it has not been a contest between West and East, either globally, or within Ukraine.

Five years ago, Ukraine's election was a veritable post-cold war battleground. Senior members of the US administration made their way to Kiev; US money helped fuel the Orange movement. Russia was, typically, even more heavy-handed. Vladimir Putin, then President, visited Ukraine three days before the vote and prematurely congratulated Yanukovych on a victory already seen as tainted.

Such open outside partisanship made Yushchenko a proxy Westerner and Yanukovych a proxy Russian, and Ukrainian voters divided accordingly. The west and centre of the country favoured Yushchenko, while Crimea and the east preferred Yanukovych. And with pro-Western allegiance went support for Ukrainian membership not just of the European Union, but of Nato. Tymoshenko, who became the first post-Orange Revolution prime minister, was fiercely anti-Russian. Yanukovych stood for everything she did not.

Yet to divine such a clear-cut division was always too simplistic. Ukrainians' different views about Russia depend in part on where they live and what language they speak. But on independence they are in absolute agreement. In no poll since the independence referendum of 1991 has a majority, even in the east, sought a retreat from statehood. Any argument is not about rejoining Moscow, but about how far the facts of geography should determine Ukraine's politics. Here, the election of 2010 suggests a shift.

Five years ago there were those who followed the newly-elected President Yushchenko in hoping that Ukraine would spring at once into the Western camp by virtue of its Orange credentials. For Ukrainians, who have to live in the country where it is, rather than where they might like it to be, such hope seems to have given way to a recognition that Ukraine must take its place in between.

In her last stint as prime minister, the erstwhile anti-Russian firebrand, Tymoshenko, struck up a pragmatic relationship with Putin and they started to treat each other as neighbouring heads of government. A more polished Yanukovych – now, like his rivals, employing Western PR advisers – campaigned on a platform that included a free-trade agreement with the EU, and possible eventual membership.

In this election there was no high-profile electioneering by Russia or by the United States. Nor did any new gas dispute with Russia rear its head. Above all, though, this was an election between Ukrainians, not cold-war proxies, campaigning on Ukrainian issues. You can relive the excitement of the Orange Revolution and regret that, since then, it has been two steps forward and one back, but at least it isn't the other way round. At best, perhaps, everyone is finally getting used to the idea of an independent Ukraine, including Ukrainians themselves.

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