Presidency is turning out to be a hard job
Never before have so many people had so much riding on Ukraine. Mr. Yushchenko can take a lot of credit for getting his country this far.
By Matthew Kaminski, The Wall Street Journal
New York, New York, Saturday, December 17, 2005

KIEV — Lining the walls of the Soviet-era presidential building are
photographs of protestors in this city’s Independence Square. In each,
there is an orange banner, scarf or flag: the color of the “revolution”
that brought Viktor Yushchenko into this office. The man himself takes
his tea in an orange mug emblazoned with his campaign slogan “Tak,
Yushchenko,” (Yes, Yushchenko). How sweet those memories must
be amid the trials of government.

For Mr. Yushchenko, the presidency is turning out to be a hard job. A long
year ago he won a free and fair rerun of a fraudulent election. Hundreds of
thousands protested peacefully for 17 freezing days and nights to force the
Leonid Kuchma regime to back down. But now the anniversary celebrations
are muted: The heroes of Independence Square squabbled and parted ways.

A faltering economy and the whiff of corruption saw their popularity drop.
Ask any Ukrainian about their revolution today, and the common response
will be “What a letdown!”

Mr. Yushchenko is more self-assured than he used to be, but also more
testy. “Forgive me, but political battles aren’t unique to Ukraine,” he
says somewhat snarkily when pressed about his troubles. People who know
him attribute the edge to lingering health problems dating back to last
year’s campaign, when a mysterious poison — diagnosed as a unique strain of
dioxin — disfigured him and caused severe abdominal problems. The scars
and swelling on his once-chiseled face aren’t fading as fast as doctors had
hoped. “Never felt better,” he says, with little conviction, adding that
swimming and exercise have brought him down to his pre-revolutionary

Along with many post-election promises, the investigation into his
poisoning is bogged down. Early on, the Yushchenko camp blamed the
Kuchma secret services; some pointed the finger to a secret KGB laboratory.
“I don’t want to go deep into the details of the ongoing investigation, but
I can say there are more than 10 avenues we’re pursuing,” Mr. Yushchenko
says. The impression, a senior Western diplomat notes, is that maybe they
don’t want to know the answer: This pro-Western Ukrainian government is
having enough trouble already trying to preserve “harmonious” — in Mr.
Yushchenko’s euphemistic phrase — relations with Moscow.

Never before have so many people had so much riding on Ukraine. For the
U.S., a staunch supporter nearly from its surprise birth in 1991, a strong
and independent Ukraine provides a good guarantee that Russia won’t
rebuild its old empire. The Orange Revolution added another potential
strategic benefit: Maybe Kiev could teach Moscow democracy!

Vladimir Putin, who watched the outbreak of popular democracy next-door
with evident anxiety, certainly lives in open fear of the “orange”
contagion at home and across his backyard. The Kremlin wants to see Mr.
Yushchenko and the post-Soviet democracy movement falter. The Europeans
are more ambivalent, desiring a stable Ukraine that won’t press too many
uncomfortable demands on the eurocrats in Brussels.

Mr. Yushchenko can sound overly defensive. Every recent political turnover
in his region brought disappointment, he points out. “Fifteen years ago,
when Lech Walesa and his prime minister got into a fight, a few months
after the first victory of East European democracy, there was so much
disillusionment,” he says. With Poland now in the EU and NATO, he adds,
“Most people have already forgotten about it. . . . Ukraine is going
through the same process.”

Mr. Yushchenko’s ambitions are plainly to anchor Ukraine in the richer West
without overly antagonizing Russia, its biggest trading partner and close
cousin. Though fluent in Russian, he now insists on using Ukrainian even in
meetings with foreign journalists — “That’s more PC,” his aide confides.

His cozy office is littered with pastoral paintings that evoke Ukraine’s
deep peasant roots. A picture portrays the 17th-century Cossack leader
Bohdan Khmelnitsky, whose uprising against the Poles was the great national
founding myth until the Orange Revolution overwrote it. And in a nod to the
birthplace of Mrs. Yushchenko, a bust of JFK sits on a mantelpiece.

Mistakes were made, he admits. Just like the Serbian coalition that toppled
Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, Ukraine’s opposition was united by a single
goal. Once President Kuchma and his cronies were gone, so was the glue that
held more than 10 opposition parties together. On taking power, the new
crowd behaved a lot like the old one. The foxy Yulia Tymoshenko, the other
face of the Ukrainian democratic turnover, set about to settle scores in
the prime minister’s job. Businessmen close to her began eyeing the assets
belonging to Mr. Kuchma’s friends. Mr. Yushchenko’s wealthy pals were
often no better.

By September, amid widespread public unhappiness with the return of
Politics As Usual, the president fired Ms. Tymoshenko as well his closest
friend. “I brought the team that stood behind me on the Square into power
and gave them good jobs, but in no time they started to act to further
their own personal interests,” he says. “For half a year, I tried to stop
this. The ideals of the Square were in danger of being betrayed [so] I
didn’t have any other choice but to dismiss them.” Yet diplomats point out
that the president isn’t pushing very hard to investigate the corruption

It’s all vintage Yushchenko. He waited too long, letting the populist and
conflict-ridden government do real damage to the economy. GDP growth,
at 12% last year, will be less than half that in 2005, a fact that the
state-controlled Russia media tout to tar the very notion of democracy.

“Yushchenko has an extraordinary absence of focus and discipline,” said a
senior Western diplomat in Kiev. Yet the Ukrainian president eventually did
the right thing by sacking his crew, while stopping short of a proper
inquiry. Corruption allegations rarely bring down governments in the former
Soviet Union.

Mr. Yushchenko is an accidental hero. Born in a small town in the
northeast, he is a proud Ukrainian but not an archetypical nationalist. As
central bank governor, he brought inflation down from 10,000% and
successfully introduced the hryvnia — the new official currency that
replaced the “Karbovanets” (or “Coupon”), a temporary currency used in
Ukraine during the period of separation from the rouble zone. He held other
jobs in the Kuchma regime before going into opposition to topple it.

Last year, his good looks struck a contrast with the Kuchma heir apparent,
Viktor Yanukovych, a former convict who wasn’t “the face of a European
nation,” in one friend’s description. The poisoning was intended to dent
his physical appeal and force him off the campaign trail. Sidelined for a
few weeks, Mr. Yushchenko earned respect for carrying on with intense pain.

The experience gave him moral standing that he never had before. Yet he
never became a beloved figure who, on his own, could have drawn all those
people into the street. He repeats that the Ukrainians basically got fed up
with cynical, cheating rulers and wanted a proper democracy. That sounds
about right, and is not self-deprecation.

In spite of the bad press about the country in recent months, the bigger
picture isn’t overwhelmingly negative. Come to Kiev from Moscow to
properly appreciate a vibrant civic society in action. With rare exceptions,
the media is free. A tabloid title best sums it up: “Bez Tsenzury” (or
“Uncensored — the newspaper for a new country.”) “No one in the ruling
circle now orders a temnik,” says Mr. Yushchenko, who presumably is in a
position to know. In the Kuchma era, temniks were secret instructions to
journalists on what to say on air or in print. “A year ago, you turned on
five TV channels and watched the same program,” he says. “Every TV channel
can now report on the opposition’s positions and ideas.” Ironically, most
large TV stations are owned by Kuchma cronies, whose holdings have been
untouched, in line with the new commitment to freedom of the press.

The Orange Revolution brought another innovation: Unlike in Russia today or
Ukraine before, “elections can’t be won through electoral cheating and the
use of administrative resources,” Mr. Yushchenko declares. “No more of that
here.” Mr. Yushchenko sounds sincere. He also doesn’t have much choice.

By now, Ukrainians know all the electoral tricks. What’s more, people are
passionate about politics and take their choices seriously, which can’t be
said of most of Ukraine’s eastern neighbors. Three months before election
day the parliamentary campaign is already in full swing.

Speaking of neighboring countries, Mr. Yushchenko says that “only a few
people can remain unchanged after seeing the people on the Square who came
out to demand not bread but freedom.” So can Russia, Belarus and other
authoritarian neighbors follow suit? He chooses his words slowly. “On our
part there is no desire to try to force any political templates specific to
this country on others,” he says, then ventures that young people will
bring about change. “It’s only the beginning.” Is Mr. Putin a democrat? Mr.
Yushchenko ducks the question altogether.

He provokes the Kremlin, however, by courting the West and making
democracy-promotion a foreign policy goal. Earlier this month, he and
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, an old friend who started the whole
“color revolution” craze with the “Rose Revolution” in 2003, hosted a
Community of Democratic Choice summit in Kiev. Mr. Putin didn’t attend.

Ukraine, perforce, proceeds with care. Mr. Yushchenko is suspect in his
country’s eastern, Russian-speaking regions. The geographic and linguistic
split in Ukraine — carelessly cast as “ethnic” in the more superficial
reports — is one that Russia can exploit. Russia’s state-owned Gazprom
now wants Ukraine to pay full market price for natural gas, while keeping
“friendly” countries on a subsidized regime. The move appears timed to hurt
the democrats and help the pro-Russian forces in the coming elections.
Asked what’s behind Gazprom’s provocation, Mr. Yushchenko replies
simply, “I want to avoid any political speculation.”

At Kiev airport, the sign above the pimply guard gives a “Border Hotline”
number for customer complaints. In town, the altered relationship between
rulers and ruled comes out in small ways. I find myself counting
GAI-ishniky, the ubiquitous traffic cops across the old U.S.S.R. whose
ability to solicit bribes knows no rival. In an hour, I spot only two —
not bothering anyone.

Having carved out its freedom with difficulty, a new nation is under
construction. Monuments to this new Ukraine, with its funky trident symbol
and blue-and-yellow flag, are popping up all over Kiev. On the hill above
Independence Square, previously named for Lenin, a neon sign used to
spell out “Moscow” in large letters, advertising a hotel. The place was
rechristened “Ukraine.” Everywhere, the old Soviet ways are petering out.

Kiev is now a pleasant place — no, above all, a normal one. Normalcy
doesn’t come easily in these parts. Mr. Yushchenko can take a lot of credit
for getting his country this far. -30-

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