Farewell, Mr. President

Photo Credit: Tammy Lynch. Yushchenko on the screen speaking during “Orange Revolution” in 2004.

by Tammy Lynch

As Ukrainians go to the polls today, they will be saying good bye to the man they once supported in what was termed the “Orange Revolution.” President Viktor Yushchenko was supposed to change Ukraine. He was supposed to be different – a representation of “the people.” It now appears that, in the end, he simply was not.

On November 27, six days after the start of the revolution, Tom Warner of the Financial Times attempted to describe the atmosphere created by the thousands of people flooding into downtown Kyiv. “The growing crowds have taken on a dynamic of their own,” he wrote. “Whatever one names it, the movement Mr. Yushchenko began has become an awesome demonstration of popular power.” (See the Financial Times, 27 Nov 04, p. 7. The article is no longer available at the FT website.)

This blogger would quibble with Mr. Warner about one point – the popular movement that resulted in the November protests did not begin with Yushchenko. In fact, the opposition movement had been building for years. But Warner fully captured the sentiment on the street, as visitors to Kyiv at that time can attest. It was one of joy, hope, optimism and borderline euphoria.

As Yushchenko stood on the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kyiv on those bitter cold days of November 2004, he galvanized the public behind him in support of free elections, justice, an inclusive government and an end to corruption.

The expectations were too high for anyone, of course. But few would have predicted that Viktor Yushchenko could have failed so completely to implement what he promised.

By May 2008, European politicians were questioning Yushchenko’s commitment to reform, and wondering if his desire to undermine his political opponent, PM Yulia Tymoshenko, was more important than changing Ukraine. “There is no more depressing sight in politics than a leader who, desperate to cling to power, ruins his country in the process,” wrote MEPs Elmar Brok, Jas Gawronski and Charles Tannock. “Yushchenko,” they said, “seems motivated only by a desire to damage his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, whom he perceives as the biggest threat to his re-election in 2010.” (The article is syndicated and also available here)

With a good bit of help from Tymoshenko and her allies, Yushchenko succeeded. If polls are correct, voters fed up with empty promises appear ready throw out just about everyone associated with the Orange Revolution, including Tymoshenko.

Over the last year, Yushchenko’s allies have pointed to the free press and a history of free parliamentary elections as the President’s biggest legacies. But as the FT noted this week, “In backing last-minute [election] amendments put forward by supporters of Viktor Yanukovich, … Mr Yushchenko acted in apparent contradiction to the principles for which he fought in the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution,’ when he battled against late revisions to election laws.”

The article further quotes Yushchenko ally Vadim Karyasov, who confirms that Yushchenko supports his former opponent Viktor Yanukvoych in the presidential race. Yes, the same Yanukoych earlier accused by Yushchenko of election fraud, and the same Yanukovych in office when Yushchenko was mysteriously poisoned.

So, what will Mr. Yushchenko’s lasting accomplishments be? The press is generally free, elections are generally fair, and political competition is real and effective. But although Yushchenko and all government officials should be praised for not attempting to curtail political freedoms, Ukraine’s people and regional political system are a big part of the reason for these successes.

Therefore, it will be unfortunate if, when the history of President Yushchenko is written, the one accomplishment credited solely to him is the undermining of the hopes of those who elected him.

Good luck, Mr. Yushchenko.

Connect on twitter @TammyLynch