Friday, February 06, 2009

Ukraine: Orange Revolution turns sour

Political squabbling and a dire economic situation in Ukraine are a far cry from the heady days of the 2004 "Orange Revolution", when there were high hopes for that country's future.

Ukraine's current president, Viktor Yushchenko, was elected in December 2004 after hundreds of thousands of his supporters took to the streets to protest the results of an earlier election declared fraudulent by the Ukrainian Supreme Court and international monitors.

That massive protest became known as the "Orange Revolution," named after the color worn by Yushchenko's supporters. In a second, court-ordered election, Mr. Yushchenko defeated Viktor Yanukovich, now head of the powerful "Party of Regions" in the Ukrainian parliament, or Rada.

There was great euphoria in Ukraine then and confidence that the "Orange Revolution" would usher in a new era.

But analysts say that confidence quickly dissipated as President Yushchenko and his former ally, now Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, engaged in bitter political fights - squabbling that continues to this day.

"Very early, after the events of 2004, the two sides divided over policy agenda, some of it had to do with the ambitions of the principals within the coalition - Tymoshenko and Yushchenko. And they've never really been able to agree either on a division of power, not just for themselves, but for those who support them within their respective parties in the Rada and the cabinet. At its base, there is a fundamental political and personal tension between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko - and it has made it very difficult for the two major parties and then others who could support them within a coalition, to come together. Whether Ukraine, in a deep enough crisis or an on-going crisis, will force them to look beyond their personal and political differences I think is very difficult to know," said Robert Legvold, who is with Columbia University in New York.

Experts say the political infighting, coupled with allegations of corruption in the Yushchenko administration, have disillusioned Ukrainians even more.

Katinka Barysch, with the London-based Center for European Reform, says Ukraine's dire economic situation is another black mark against Mr. Yushchenko.

"Ukraine's economy is in freefall," she said. "The industrial production is falling at a rate of 30 percent compared with last year. They already had to go to the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and borrow 16 billion Euros or $20 billion. Inflation is in double digits. Their budget is out of control. Very difficult situation."

Experts also say the recent crisis with Russia over the price of natural gas hasn't helped Ukraine's reputation as a reliable energy supplier for Europe.

About a quarter of Europe's natural gas comes from Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly. Eighty percent of the gas it ships west passes through the same pipelines that supply Ukraine. Russian officials have accused Ukraine of siphoning off gas meant for Europe, a charge denied by Ukrainian leaders.

For 13 days in January, during one of the coldest winters in years, gas deliveries were severely disrupted to 18 European countries.

Many analysts say the dispute with Russia has hurt Ukraine's chances of becoming a member of the European Union.

Robert Legvold, with Columbia University in New York, says the Moscow-Kyiv gas crisis is a symptom of other problems.

"The crisis simply is a punctuation to what's been true all along the line, that is the failure of Ukraine and its political leadership to pull together and then develop a coherent strategy for addressing fundamental economic issues in the country. Even when there was substantial growth in Ukraine, a certain amount of dynamism before the current financial crisis, gave Europe, the European Union, pause. They wish Ukraine well. They want to help. They want to support Ukraine. They want to assist it in making the kind of structural change, in carrying out the kind of economic reform that's necessary - but until Ukraine gets its act together, there is a limit to what the European Union can do. And that has been the story now for more than two years," he said.

David Marples, with the University of Alberta in Canada, says given all of Ukraine's problems, President Yushchenko's approval rating is at an all-time low.

"His popularity has sunk like a stone in Ukraine. It's below 10 percent now - I've even heard three or four percent depending on which poll one looks at. These are historic lows and they are lows for any leader in Europe," he said. "No one is in that kind of ballpark area of less than 10 percent popularity. It's quite astonishing. And I can't really see any way that he could return as president in the next election. I very much doubt he would even run unless something dramatic happens in the meantime. So I think we are looking at an alternative now to Yushchenko as president of Ukraine."

Presidential elections in Ukraine are expected to take place this December or in January of next year.

In the meantime, Marples and others say President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko must resolve their differences and begin to seriously address all of Ukraine's problems - as they said they would during the 2004 "Orange Revolution."

Published with the permission of Voice of America
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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