The euphoric optimism of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution has vanished like the tears of a long-spurned lover, replaced by profound cynicism as the country braces for its first presidential vote since that dramatic show of people power five years ago.
President Viktor Yushchenko, greeted as a hero during his 2008 Canadian tour by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, both houses of Parliament, and members of Canada’s 1.2 million-strong Ukrainian-Canadian community, barely registers in polls and is expected to be trounced in the first round of voting on Jan. 17.His Orange Revolution partner-turned-rival Yulia Tymoshenko, the charismatic though erratic prime minister, is running second in polls to Viktor Yanukovych, who was portrayed by the western media as a Moscow stooge when he ultimately lost that 2004 showdown.Yanukovych, the Regions Party leader, has a political resume so blemished it would spell doom in any democracy not so deeply influenced by regionalism and corruption.Yanukovych was imprisoned twice in his youth (once for a robbery, once for assault), has questionable literacy skills (his claim to be a university professor was challenged when he misspelled “professor” and made numerous other grammatical and punctuation errors on an 2004 election document), is a painfully awkward public speaker, is beholden to several oligarchs (in particular shadowy billionaire Rinat Akhmetov), and was tainted by the rigged 2004 election.Yanukovych initially won that vote, but the victory was soon nullified after fraud was detected and hundreds of thousands of protesters, wearing Yushchenko’s orange campaign scarves and hats and waving orange flags, took to the streets to successfully demand a new vote.The drama of Yushchenko’s subsequent win was heightened by the botched attempt earlier that year to kill him with poison, which left facial scars that looked like war wounds. His approval rating soon soared above 60 per cent.Today, thanks to a brutal recession, chronic infighting with Orange partner Tymoshenko, and numerous scandals, the current president is polling at around three per cent.For those enthused by political horse races, the Ukraine election has much to offer. While Yanukovych is leading in polls, many observers believe he has limited appeal outside the country’s Russian-speaking south and east.That means the populist Tymoshenko, a strong public speaker, could pull off a come-from-behind win in the second round of votes to take place Feb. 7.More sobering, however, is the sour mood of Ukrainians in a country that has long been viewed as strategically crucial in the West’s ability to contain Russian aggression.Polls indicate that roughly three-quarters of the population view politicians as self-serving and corrupt, while a November survey by Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center concluded that Ukrainians were among the most bitter citizens of ex-communist countries since the collapse of the old Soviet Union during the 1989-91 period.Ukrainians ranked a distant last among those surveyed on several questions relating to their appreciation of democracy and free enterprise, according to Pew survey in September of 1,000 Ukrainians, which has an error margin of four percentage points.An astonishingly low 30 per cent per cent said they approve of the change to democracy – the only one of nine countries with a score lower than 50 per cent. Just 36 per cent of Ukrainians polled approved of the move to capitalism.Ukraine’s pervasive cynicism, corruption, and petty squabbling among political leaders is disturbing for many members of the 1.2 million-strong Ukrainian-Canadian community that is one of the most influential diasporas in Canada.“The fights between them (Orange Revolution heroes Yushchenko and Tymoshenko), and in particular between the gatekeepers and insiders in both camps, is just abominable. It’s horrible, terrible,” Canada Ukraine Foundation chairman Bob Onyschuk, a Toronto lawyer, said in an interview.Marco Levytsky, publisher of the Edmonton-based Ukrainian News, said there is “considerable disillusionment” within the Canadian diaspora, which is overwhelmingly from western Ukraine, is hostile to Russia, and therefore mostly opposed to Yanukovych’s Russia-friendly political movement.“Yushchenko has been a great disappointment and Tymoshenko seems to be concerned about power for the sake of power rather than about real reform.”Both Canadians said their main concern has been recent electoral law changes, which they fear will increase the likelihood of fraud.The Canada Ukraine Foundation has pressed, so far without success, for the Harper government to fund community members to attend the presidential elections as observers.(The Canadian government, which lists Ukraine as the only European country in its top-20 list of targets for development assistance, is contributing instead to a delegation of observers from the Organization for Security and Co- operation in Europe.)While the 2004 election was often described by the western media as a battle over whether Ukraine would join the West or fall under Russia’s domination, many analysts say public concerns then and now are predominantly over incessant corruption.Transparency International ranks Ukraine as the 146th most corrupt country on the planet, in an unflattering tie with a group of countries that includes dictator Robert Mugabe’s corrupt and impoverished Zimbabwe.The ranking is particularly shocking given that the country is, according to the United Nations, the 85th most developed country in terms of measurements such as per capita income, health and education.While examples of corruption are rife, perhaps the most disheartening for Ukraine-watchers occurred the day in 2005 when Yushchenko, a former central bank president with a modest government salary, was confronted by the media with evidence that his 19-year-old son was driving around town in a $150,000 US sports car, living in an outrageously expensive apartment, and carrying a platinum-plated cellphone said to be worth $50,000 US.Yushchenko called journalists names while shooting back that the items were all gifts from his son’s wealthy friends.But the event led the public to conclude that “corruption had spread into Yushchenko’s closest circles,” wrote University of Victoria political scientist Serhy Yekelchyk in his 2007 book Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation.Historians say two factors have created huge barriers standing in the way of a single democratic force being able to get a political mandate to bring in sweeping economic and political reforms.The first is the country’s regional divisions that are rooted in centuries of conquest by outsiders. The Russian-speaking population in the south and east is naturally friendlier to Moscow and more hostile to Ukraine’s unsuccessful attempts, as advocated by Ukraine nationalists in the West and cheered on by the Canadian diaspora, to develop close formal and informal ties with Europe and the U.S.The second factor, which is exacerbated by the first according to British historian and author Andrew Wilson, is the way Ukraine bloodlessly established its independence from Moscow in 1991 and again in 2004.In neither case was there an actual “revolution” leaving real battle scars and prompting actual regime change, so the communist apparatchiks and their cronies in power before independence kept their clout.While Onyschuk holds out hope that Tymoshenko can win and provide an impetus for reform, Levytsky is simply hoping the country’s fragile democratic institutions aren’t irreparably wounded by election fraud.“The hope is that, despite the leaders, the civic society will eventually prevail and the leaders will have to more or less serve the people,” he said.