Thoughts on the Revolution in Ukraine

Publication date
Tuesday, 30.11.2004

Anders Aslund


At present, it seems as if the Supreme court of Ukraine will soon judge the second round of the elections invalid, after which the parliament will appoint a new Central Election Committee and set a date or the renewed second round, probably December 19. Many issues remain open, such as how much of the second round that will be redone and whether a major political reform will be instigated. Yet, Yushchenko’s eventual victory looks likel. Yanukovich’s playing with separatism seems one big step too far.

Looking back at the election campaign, the most amazing thing about the Ukrainian drama in the last month is how perfectly predictable it has been. When I visited Ukraine in late July, people by and large said that three things would happen subsequently. First, Yushchenko would win the real presidential election. Second, Yanukovich would steal the elections. Third, then everybody would go out into the streets, and the Georgian scenario would materialize. That is exactly what has happened. Both sides were prepared, and they had geared up to this drama.

The falsification of the vote count was as crude as massive, as is plan fr om the web site of the Central Election Commission. Officially, Yanukovich won by 2.85 percent in the second round. However, this was accomplished through obvious ballot-box stuffing. Overall, participation in the second round increased by 5.4 percent of the electorate, but there was a minimal increase of 0.6 percent of the electorate in the 17 regions where Yushchenko won, but a whopping surge of 9.1 percent in the 10 regions where Yanukovich won. In particular, participation rose by 18.6 percent of the electorate to an extraordinary participation of 96.7 percent in Donetsk oblast, wh ere 96.2 percent allegedly voted for Yanukovich. If we just assume that the overall participation would have increased by 0.6 percent of the electorate, the Yanukovich people added 1.7 million votes or 5.5 percent of the votes cast. Obviously, all the added votes must have been for Yanukovich, so discounting for this effect alone, Yushchenko would have won by 3 percent of the votes cast. There were all kinds of other forms of cheating in both rounds, disinformation and massive repression as well. Thus, in a free and fair election Yushchenko would probably have won by a huge majority.

Today, it appears as if Yushchenko has won this duel. First of all, he has stayed alive. The masses have really come out into the streets. The perhaps most important factor is that the revolutionary fervor has caught on. The sense of one hundred thousand people or even more is truly enormous. Ukrainians have found all their old prejudices about themselves denied. They have proven determined and well-organized rather than disinterested and disorderly, sober rather than drunk, and intellectual rather than indifferent. I heard similar reflections in Poland after Pope John Paul’s first visit in the summer of 1979 and later during the Solidarity period. As somebody said, in 1991, Ukraine got independence, now it finally earned it. Oleksandr Potiekhin said that the Ukrainian nation has not been reborn but born. The demonstrators in Kiev dance in strength and chant “East and West together” instead of antagonizing the easterners. It is very difficult to stop such a revolutionary fervor, especially when it is so peaceful. The peacefulness is the great victory of the revolutionaries.

Yushchenko’s main challenge was to avoid being painted into the Ukrainian nationalist corner. With his victory in central Ukraine, especially Kiev, and three eastern regions, notably Sumy and Poltava, he had proven his sway in Russian-speaking regions. Then, it was no longer an issue of language or ethnicity. So what was it? Democracy! It is very difficult to stand up against democracy in an even semi-democratic election.

When the popular majority has been established, it is critical to reach to the centers of power. Even before the presidential elections, Yushchenko achieved a parliamentary majority in major political questions, though dependent on communist support. The parliament has already declared the elections invalid and dismissed the Central Election Commission. Alas, today, that majority did not materialize, and it is vital for Yushchenko to get a conclusion to this drama. The longer it lasts, the more likely that the democratic protesters will be worn out as happened in Serbia in 1996. Speed is vital for Yushchenko. If the elections will be repeated around Christmas or New Year, it will be very difficult to mobilize foreign observers, who have been so important.

The three other big powers to watch are the police, the courts and the media. To judge from the reporting, much of the police and the special police have joined Yushchenko. It is particularly reassuring to see that the old opportunist Yevhen Marchuk has joined him. To my happy surprise, the Supreme Court appears to have decided to do its job recently, and that means that it will judge firmly to Yushchenko’s benefit. The television journalists seem to just have had it and all of a sudden the very journalists stand up for Yushchenko. Although the situation is not altogether clear, it does appear reassuring.

The one factor that remains worrisome is the Eastern regions, essentially Donetsk and Luhansk. However, as these are the only truly dictatorial provinces in Ukraine, it is difficult to take any manifestations there seriously. Repression is not that bad, and people will stand up against dictatorship also there. Secession to an authoritarian Russia makes little sense, even if the GDP per capita is substantially higher in Russia. There might be a problem, but it should be possible to handle.

The Western reactions have surprised positively, especially Colin Powell’s strong statement on November 24 about not recognizing the official results of the elections. Europe has a good situation with the OSCE having gained muscle, the Council of Europe always being clear on democracy, and the EU trying to keep up with those two institutions, and the EU has benefited from the Dutch presidency, as the Dutch traditionally focus on democracy and human rights. The US and the EU have come together on a critical foreign policy issue.

Putin and his Russian political advisors are of course left with egg on their face, as Stephen Sestanovich put it on National Public Radio.  Putin has disastrously for him united the US and the EU against him. The mutual recriminations of the Russian political advisors are already staggering. Gleb Pavlovsky and Sergei Markov were arguably the man propagandists of Yankovich. Now they should take their responsibility rather than blame everybody else. This is probably the biggest blow to Putin’s authority after Beslan.

The natural decision is to hold a new second round of the presidential elections as soon as possible. That should be presumably be made by the Supreme Court. A new Central Election Commission as well as regional and local election commissions must be appointed. Some of the worst election practices, such as ambulatory ballot boxes and absentee ballots, should be outlawed. Obviously, foreign monitors who played such an important role in the tow first rounds of the presidential elections are vital also here.

One outstanding danger is that the process takes too long time so that people get tired or the sheer costs of disruption rise. Another worry is that the good-hearted Yushchenko gets cheated in a negotiation. I feel much safer if he sends Tymoshenko, Zinchenko or Poroshenko to a nasty negotiation. Yet, at this stage negotiations should be minimized. Yushchenko should offer concessions from above rather than negotiate them. He should not push reprivatizations or prosecution over corruption, as corruption has been pervasive. Instead, he should offer a general amnesty, but not for murder.

It is vital to get going with a reform program pretty soon. This is a wonderful opportunity to undertake a political reform, which should reduce presidential power and produce early parliamentary elections according to a proportional system. Then, Ukraine could move from its unaccountable presidential system to a normal parliamentary system. The party system would be strengthened, and the oligarchs would naturally accommodate without much of a struggle.

Meanwhile, it is important to get going on an economic and social reform program very soon to combat corruption, build democracy and rule of law, while building welfare. Ukraine can finally do it all, and so much is ready to go. Ukraine’s main economic problem has long been corruption, but in the current political climate public officials hardly dare to take bribes. That will bring a greater economic benefit than the loss of one month’s production that is likely because of the present general strike.

God bless the Ukrainians!



The writer is director of the Russian and Eurasian Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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