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Ukrainian Democracy and Its Cynics

A pox on both your houses” may be an appropriate individual response to frustration with the political candidates on offer in an election. But it is a dangerous sentiment for governments to hold. Choice is the essence of governance and to abstain from it — for whatever reason — is to shirk responsibility.

But that seems to be the stance of the entire West regarding Sunday’s second round of Ukraine’s presidential election. Because the Orange Revolution in 2004 turned out to be a seemingly unending series of disappointments, most Western leaders are acting as if it makes no difference whether Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko or her rival, Viktor Yanukovych, wins.

They are wrong — not only about what the election will mean for Ukrainians, who have stoically endured so much, but also about what it will mean for security and stability across Eurasia. If the Orange Revolution demonstrated one thing, it is that Ukraine’s politics are not those of a pendulum, swinging predictably between opposing forces that agree on the fundamental rules of democracy. Indeed, it is patently clear from his own words that Yanukovych does not accept the legitimacy of the Orange Revolution, which means that he does not accept the bedrock principle of democracy that you cannot cheat your way to power.

Yanukovych’s anti-democratic position should come as no surprise. His criminal record is often noted, but the particular crimes that sent him to prison are rarely spelled out. Let me do it.

On Dec. 15, 1967, Yanukovych (then 17 years old) was sentenced to three years in prison for robbery and sexual assault. He was back in prison three years later, convicted of manslaughter. But, for reasons that remain unexplained, the Soviet courts expunged his criminal record in 1978, shortly before he joined the Communist Party.

But in 2006, Yanukovych was charged with falsifying the very documents used to expunge his earlier convictions. Two key documents used to overturn his conviction for rape and robbery had been forged. Moreover, the signature of the judge in his case was also forged.

It is mind-boggling that an unrepentant, twice-convicted violent felon, a man who had sought to steal a presidential election — and who advocated a violent crackdown on the men and women peacefully protesting against his electoral fraud — should be a candidate for any office, let alone the presidency of a country of nearly 50 million people. Yanukovych’s candidacy thus reveals much about the nature of the people who back him — and also about the fragility of Ukraine’s democracy.

Of course, Tymoshenko is no saint. She carved out a successful business career in the rough and tumble of the post-Soviet gas industry. And her opponents have consistently tried to tar her business career with a taint of criminality. But not even when they controlled the entire apparatus of Ukraine’s justice system were they able to make any criminal charges stick.

What is more important about Tymoshenko is her record in government. In September, the world stood on the edge of a global financial meltdown. In the year since, Tymoshenko’s government has consistently acted to preserve international stability, even if that meant taking political hits at home. Within days of the crisis, her government was in talks with the International Monetary Fund to secure a loan to backstop Ukraine’s economy against the worst. Kiev reached agreement in near-record speed, despite domestic political objections to the rigor of its terms.

Although the whole world has suffered severely from the crisis, Ukraine was hit worse than most countries, as international demand for steel, which accounted for 42 percent of exports in the first half of 2008, collapsed. As the crisis gathered pace, Ukraine was completely cut off from international financial markets, despite sound public finances and low foreign debt.

Under tremendous strain, Tymoshenko’s government succeeded in keeping the budget deficit under control. Inflation was halved from 31 percent in May 2008 to about 10 percent today. The current-account deficit has been almost eliminated, and the banking crisis contained. Ukraine’s international reserves are a reassuring $26 billion, roughly one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. The exchange rate, which has been adjusted, is relatively stable, and it could help improve Ukraine’s competitiveness, given international conditions.

Tymoshenko’s government also made a clean break with the ancien regime in the gas business, increasing Europe’s energy security in the process. At considerable domestic political risk, Tymoshenko concluded a long-term gas transit and purchase agreement with Russia that is transparent and market-oriented, as well as a far-reaching agreement with the European Union, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank on reform of Ukraine’s gas sector and gas-transit system. Yanukovych, whose campaign relies on financing from the main beneficiaries of the old, corrupt energy system, seems certain to undo these reforms, thus reintroducing grave risks into European energy markets.

Moreover, Tymoshenko managed Ukraine’s crisis despite the tremendous and often irresponsible resistance of her political opponents, who frequently paralyzed the parliament when the government refused to accept populist proposals that would undermine efforts at financial stabilization. Amazingly, President Viktor Yushchenko regularly vetoed decisions necessary for that stabilization, including every effort at privatization.

Tymoshenko deserves the West’s thanks — not the cynicism that we are currently seeing — for keeping Ukraine afloat over the past 15 months. Yanukovych’s record of violence and disdain for democratic norms is too entrenched to think that, should he win, he will ever allow his position to be challenged again. A victory for Yanukovych now may be the last free vote Ukraine sees for a long time.

Nina Khrushcheva, author of “Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics,” teaches international affairs at The New School in New York and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. © Project Syndicate

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