Ukraine better off than it seems

19:09, 24 March 2006
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Anyone who wants to understand Ukraine from afar is in big trouble. I came to a very different country when I revisited Ukraine four months ago, having visited many times in earlier years. Politics and society are changing at a lightning pace. Keeping track is harder than maintaining a scorecard at a basketball game. 

Anyone who wants to understand Ukraine from afar is in big trouble. I came to a very different country when I revisited Ukraine four months ago, having visited many times in earlier years.

Politics and society are changing at a lightning pace. Keeping track is harder than maintaining a scorecard at a basketball game.

After the first ruptures in the Orange camp, the dismissal of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the onset of the age of Orange acrimony, the conventional wisdom from abroad has been that a great opportunity to advance reform was squandered.

But nothing I had read or been told in recent months prepared me for what I found. Certainly no reading of the Western press captures the essence of current events or trends.

From the outside, the story is simple. Personal ambitions have undone the Orange camp, slowed reforms and opened the door for the potential return  of the old order. But the reality is just a little bit different.

Myth One: The Orange camp is irreconcilably divided and incapable of reconciling.

In point of fact, Our Ukraine, the bloc loyal to President Viktor Yushchenko, and the Tymoshenko bloc may not be as divided as it seems.  Much of the harsh rhetoric between them is a fight for the hearts and minds of the Yushchenko electorate.

Polls among the most reputable polling agencies have for months shown pretty much the same thing: two irreconcilable camps; one pro-Orange, commanding roughly 52 percent support, the other, scornful of the Orange Revolution and attracting roughly 44 percent support.

This is a divide identical to the results of the December 2004 presidential elections. Voters simply aren`t crossing over. And that means that the only way the Orange parties can increase their share is by going after one another. It does not mean that the Orange parties won`t be able to  shape a government after March 26.

Indeed, off the record, leading politicians in Tymoshenko`s Byut bloc and Our Ukraine are confident of a modus vivendi, and some say that a formula for power sharing is already in place.

Myth Two: While the Orange parties are hopelessly divided, the opposition Regions of Ukraine bloc, led by Viktor Yanukovych, are unified and cohesive.

In point of fact, there are deep fissures in the Regions bloc. The Regions are full of politicians who veer toward Russia and want the restoration of a Donetsk-dominated authoritarian regime. But the party also has more pragmatic politicians who understand that the Orange Revolution has led to irrevocable changes in the consciousness of many Ukrainians. They know that the constant political struggle of the last two years needs to be followed by a period of stability, if not outright cooperation.

While the Regions have many political troglodytes who seek revenge and the restoration of authoritarian rule, there is also a group influenced by business lobbies, such as tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, that wants stability, European integration, a prosperous economy and the diminishing of the political and regional divide.

Myth Three: There is a danger of a so-called "revanche," or tilt toward Russia.

Wrong again. While it is regrettable that the Regions have so many politicians who have questionable democratic credentials, and many are alleged to be implicated in the efforts to falsify the presidential elections of 2004, "revanche" is hardly possible.

First, in Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine has an honest and democratic president who retains considerable power in the areas of national security and foreign policy, and who will influence government through the Our Ukraine bloc. Second, power is now dispersed within the state and between the state and society. No one can acquire unchecked powers.

Myth Four: The lack of consensus on economics inside the Orange camp  and the absence of a stable majority will result in policy zigzags that will discourage Western investment and hold back economic growth.

Wrong again. Nearly all politicians make extravagant, budget-busting promises in election campaigns. That is one of the unfortunate characteristics of democratic contestation. But once in power, the need to maintain budgetary discipline leads many populist promises to be toned down or forgotten.

Because oligarchs and leading businessmen are dispersed across the spectrum of political parties, they are likely to cooperate in pressing to reduce taxes and control inflation, which threaten to erode profits. Ukraine`s emerging business elite are likely to influence most parties and parliamentarians to promote pro-business policies.

So, with a parliament in which no single group will dominate; power divided between the president, parliament, government and Constitutional Court; a differentiated business elite; and an active civil society and media that showed their mettle in December 2004, Ukraine may be headed for a soft landing.

Then there is the Russia factor. Russia`s energy pressures on Ukraine this winter may well have been an effort to destabilize Ukraine, but it`s important that such moves would primarily serve as a blow to the economic interests of Ukraine`s industrial east.

Russia`s moves have helped focus the minds of Ukraine`s eastern magnates  on the fact that economic sovereignty requires diversification, cooperation with a wide array of neighbors in the West and Central Asia, not necessarily integration with Moscow.

Political analysts run a great risk in predicting. But unless the pollsters are fabulously wrong, on March 27 Ukraine will have an Orange government led by Our Ukraine, Tymoshenko`s Byut and the Socialists, with a prime minister from Our Ukraine, and Yulia Tymoshenko as parliament speaker.

If Tymoshenko moves away from the sharp political intramural fight to a coalition approach (not a sure thing), the new Orange alignment will be stable and effective over the long haul.

Whatever path Tymoshenko takes on issues such as tax relief and energy policy, there is likely to be a clear parliamentary majority made up of a coalition of politicians who answer to pragmatic economic interests.

Readers and investors visiting Kyiv to try and make sense of the storm shouldn`t worry: Ukraine will have a soft landing.

The post-Communist era is over. The authoritarian era is done. Divided power, multiple interests, snarky media, powerful lobbies, intrusive civic organizations and individual ambitions rule. And that means the Orange Revolution has triumphed and that Ukraine is now much like the democratic world that views and misunderstands it from afar.   

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Adrian Karatnycky is president and founder of the Orange Circle, a New York-based international nongovernmental organization that promotes  Ukraine`s integration into Europe and the democratic community of nations  through conferences, briefings, research and the  acilitation of investment  and business and contacts.

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The article was monitored by The Action Ukraine Report (AUR) Monitoring Service, Morgan Williams, Editor.

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