Ukraine: A Democracy at Risk

Ukraine: A Democracy at Risk

Five years ago this month, an orange sea of Ukrainians flooded the streets of Kiev. Protesting the attempt of then-President Leonid Kuchmas` administrative machine to falsify election results, they demanded...

Those longing for strong-armed rule may outnumber those who want to preserve their imperfect democracy.

Five years ago this month, an orange sea of Ukrainians flooded the streets of Kiev. Protesting the attempt of then-President Leonid Kuchmas` administrative machine to falsify election results, they demanded the right to choose their country`s leader. They demonstrated to the world their desire for freedom, justice, and democracy. They brought new leadership to power but it failed to deliver most of the promises given to the people on the frozen Maidan. Disillusioned and discouraged, Ukrainians are coming to the polls once again this January. And now, those longing for strong-armed rule may well outnumber those who want to preserve their imperfect democracy. It`s time for the West to take note.

Over the past five years, the people`s desire to see political leaders held accountable for their wrongdoings remains unfulfilled. The promise of justice, which became the mantra of the Orange Revolution, was betrayed in its aftermath. Most of the crimes of Mr. Kuchma`s regime remain unpunished, while many of their alleged instigators still enjoy privileged status and material comfort. Some even received awards or promotions from the new authorities. Moreover, Ukraine`s current rulers retain immunity from prosecution and engage in corrupt activities with the same sense of impunity as their predecessors. According to a 2009 Transparency International report, Ukraine`s corruption level remains on par with Russia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, showing no improvement since 2004.

Unrealized reforms and widespread corruption have had a major corrosive effect on the Ukrainian public. According to the last poll by the Pew Research Center, over two-thirds of Ukrainians believe that only a leader with a strong hand can solve the country`s problems. By contrast, jonly one in five Ukrainians thinks that democracy is an answer. Even though disappointment with democracy and capitalism shows in most of the countries of the former Soviet bloc, Ukraine still stands out. Only a third of Ukrainians approve of the country moving from a state-controlled to a market economy, and a change to multiparty democracy.

From a once promising democratic leader in the region, Ukraine has transformed into an example of disenchantment for the democratic and civil society activists in neighboring countries. Belarusian activists and Russian opposition can no longer show their followers that effective public protest can bring genuine changes to the country.

Responding to public demand and pursuing their own agenda, the front runners in the 2010 Ukrainian election are promising to restore Putin-style vertical power with centralized political control. Moreover, they lack transparency in decision making and possess a weak commitment to fighting corruption especially in their close circles. They hide their true personal wealth and publicize dubious income declarations that have become the target of many investigative reports.

Day-by-day it is becoming harder for Ukrainian journalists to do their job. Even before the election campaign started, a Ukrainian court barred criticism of one presidential candidate, current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko The ruling was later revoked after a major outcry from civil society groups. Still, TV reports are not covering the sharpest criticism of the front runners. The main achievement of the Orange Revolution, freedom of the press, is now in danger. Having once managed to reclaim their rights and freedoms in front of the world, Ukrainians risk losing it all over again.

The EU and other democratic nations need urgently to develop a clear constructive and principled policy with regard to Ukraine. Their calls for free and fair elections today will not have much of an effect on the Ukrainian authorities without a real commitment to hold them to their word. Whoever will become the next president of Ukraine needs to be watched closely, and they should get that message now. Another honeymoon with a Ukrainian leader, if similar to the one with Mr. Kuchma in 2000 and with Victor Yushchenko in 2005, could lead to the complete collapse of Ukraine`s fledgling democracy.

If the next leaders of Ukraine prove unwilling or unable to bring about change for the country, and instead continue down the path toward their authoritarian past, the only solution for the west will be to focus on the growing civil society and support new emerging leaders. This, at least, will guarantee that the few gains of the Orange Revolution will not be reversed. And even if Ukrainians lose their way today, the basic democratic reforms they have earned will ensure that their destiny will still remain in their own hands

By MYROSLAVA GONGADZE, Wall Street Journal

Ms. Gongadze is a Ukrainian journalist and human rights activist, and the widow of slain Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze.

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