Last week's presidential election in Ukraine failed to produce a clear winner, but it clearly produced an obvious loser: the incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko, the charismatic figure who, only five years ago, symbolised for many the democratic aspirations of the Orange Revolution.
The election also produced an ironic reversal of fortunes for opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, who symbolised the old Soviet practice of transfer of power and was forced out by the Orange Revolution.Yanukovich received 35.42%, the current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko won 25%, while Yushchenko received less than 6% of the votes. A second round of voting is scheduled for February 7.Some commentators wondered whether the Orange Revolution had been all for naught. This wrongly equates the Orange Revolution's democratic values with the political performance of one of its leaders. The popular rejection of Yushchenko does not mean the failure of or the rejection of the democratic foundations that the Orange Revolution put in place.Alive and kickingThe very result of the election in which the president is being rejected in favour of the opposition leader attests to the democratic nature of the process — a major accomplishment of the Orange Revolution. The US government recognised this achievement and congratulated the Ukranian people for it."We congratulate the Ukrainian people on the conduct of their January 17 presidential elections. This is another significant demonstration of the development of democracy in Ukraine," US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.The real failure here is not one of value but of personality; the astounding rejection by the Ukrainian people of Yushchenko is a rejection of his personal approach to democratic governance, but an affirmation of the values of democracy.First among these values is the primacy of people on whose behalf the politicians govern. If democracy is about government by the people for the people, Yushchenko failed to uphold that important value. He was isolated from the people and preoccupied with the intrigues of politics and dissipated by the demanding complexities of power.Democracy is also about the art of compromise and consensus building. Here again Yushchenko failed the democratic test. He seemed to spend more time fending off rivals and uncovering real or imagined parliamentary conspiracies, than on the business of governance. He thus made sure he had no time to build parliamentary and popular support.It is true that the fact control over the executive is divided between the president and the legislature created fertile ground for infighting and political paralysis, but Yushchenko showed no leadership in asserting the supremacy of the legislature. Instead he was busy revisiting history and making Russia look bad.The stubbornness with which he constructed and pursued his political agenda illustrates how far removed from the people Yushchenko was. High among his list of priorities was to achieve Ukrainian membership of NATO.He continued to pursue that objective even when it was made clear to him that Moscow strongly opposed Ukrainian membership of NATO. Moreover, opinion surveys showed that two-thirds of the Ukranian population opposed joining NATO.UnwiseIgnoring Moscow's security concerns in this regard only ensured the Kremlin's hostility without securing tangible assurances or support from the West. Like his friend Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who imprudently challenged Russia militarily two years ago and was humiliatingly defeated, Yushchenko unwisely defined Ukrainian independence through a series of anti-Russian measures.These included, in addition to the quest for NATO membership, the downgrading of the status of the Russian language in a country where one in three people is a native speaker of Russian. Moreover, Yushchenko made the highly provocative decision to evict the Russian navy from its Black Sea base in the port of Sevastopol.Moscow responded forcefully. It terminated its energy subsidies and demanded that Ukraine pay market prices for Russian oil and gas; it even shut down its pipelines and compelled Ukraine to accept the new terms, leading many Ukrainians to hold Yushchenko responsible for the higher energy prices.Perhaps lack of experience and a naïve understanding of international relations led Georgia's Saakashvili and Ukraine's Yushchenko to believe that they could challenge their powerful neighbour to ingratiate themselves with the West and suffer no consequences.Arguably many of Yushchenko's democratic failings might have been forgiven by the Ukrainian people had he delivered on his promise of economic prosperity; many hold him responsible for mismanagement of the economy and for the grave financial crisis that paralysed economic activities and caused the country's currency to lose 50 per cent of its value. Only emergency aid from the IMF is keeping a more severe crisis at bay.Thus the Ukrainian elections raise an interesting question: Is it possible for democracy to take hold in a country even in the absence of past democratic traditions, and despite its leaders' lack of democratic experience? The answer seems to be yes, largely because commitment to democratic values and institutions transcends the limitations of history and personality.