Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Orange Revolution

Time Magazine
Monday, Dec. 06, 2004

The Orange Revolution

Why Russia, the U.S. and Europe care so much about Ukraine's disputed presidential election


It was both a symbol and a symptom of the revolution that rippled across Ukraine last week. On Thursday, as the presenter of state-controlled UT1's main morning news program was updating viewers on the Central Electoral Commission's decision to declare Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the winner of the country's Nov. 21 presidential vote, Natalya Dmitruk, the woman who translates broadcasts into sign language, decided to send a very different message. "When the presenter started to read the news," Dmitruk tells TIME, "I said, 'I address all deaf viewers. Yushchenko is our President. Do not believe the Electoral Commission. They are lying.'" In a week filled with remarkable acts of political protest, Dmitruk's silent rebellion was one of the most defiant.

Independent Ukraine's fourth presidential election since the collapse of the Soviet Union was supposed to reach a conclusion in the Nov. 21 runoff. On Monday the Electoral Commission said preliminary tallies showed Moscow's favored candidate, Yanukovych, ahead by 3 percentage points. But immediately there were widespread accusations by Ukrainian and foreign monitors of massive fraud including voter intimidation, physical assaults and the torching of ballot boxes. Yet the state-controlled media, which had backed Yanukovych through the five-month campaign, were reporting no major violations. Convinced that the election was being stolen from the rightful victor, supporters of Western-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko poured into Kiev's Independence Square to demand that their man be recognized as the winner. City residents mixed with swarms of protesters from across the country, all wearing something orange, the color of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party. Despite heavy snow and freezing temperatures, the crowd was in a festive mood, eager to embrace Yushchenko's orange revolution against the country's Moscow-backed old guard. When a mob of students took over part of the nearby Ministry of Education building, staff members served them tea and cookies.

Yushchenko, his face disfigured by what he claims was an attempt by government authorities to poison him in September, urged people not to leave the square until the commission's ruling was overturned. "We appeal to citizens of Ukraine to support the national resistance movement," he told the cheering throng. "We should not leave this square until we secure victory." And his supporters did just that. On Saturday evening, after six days of nonstop peaceful protests, the state and its candidate were forced to back down. In a nonbinding vote, Parliament declared the poll results invalid but did not recommend a date for the rerun, although many deputies expect that to happen in mid-December. The Supreme Court, which has final jurisdiction over elections, will examine the fraud allegations and make its ruling this week. But news that Yanukovych would not be inaugurated caused jubilation in Kiev, where hundreds of thousands continued their vigil. "Nobody will stop us now," exulted Vasily, a Kiev engineer.

In a race that was fought largely over whether Ukraine would pursue Western-style reforms and closer ties to Europe or stick with state control and a tight relationship with Russia, coming that far was a remarkable achievement for Yushchenko. But even if he does ultimately prevail at the ballot box, that doesn't mean the crisis is over. Rather like red-state-blue-state America, Ukraine remains a divided and distrustful nation, with the Russian-speaking, industrialized eastern part of the country backing Yanukovych and the more nationalistic, agricultural west wanting Yushchenko. The two camps are as polarized as the reporting on UT-1's morning news broadcast.

While Yushchenko's voters celebrated in Kiev and the West, a wave of rallies rolled through Yanukovych strongholds in the east to protest what people there saw as a stolen election. Political leaders, defiant of Kiev's authority, angrily rejected the decision to hold another poll and called for the creation of a new autonomous region. Some even threatened to join eastern Ukraine with Russia. The electoral impasse could crack the country along the acute cultural and political rifts that divide it. "We are dealing with a deep split in the country," says Andrzej Zalucki, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for Poland, which shares with Ukraine a border that stretches more than 250 miles. "It's worse than just a political partition. It's ethnic and nationalistic. God forbid there's any kind of stupidity."

There's also the risk that a wayward Ukraine could damage relations between Moscow and the West. During the campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of which side he was on: he visited Ukraine twice to broadcast his support for Yanukovych. Political consultants and media specialists close to the Kremlin played a major role in shaping the strategy and message of the Yanukovych campaign, and according to specialists like the Carnegie Endowment's Anders Aslund, Russia pumped millions of dollars into his election bid. On Monday, Putin was the first world leader to congratulate the Prime Minister on his victory, a full two days before the Electoral Commission declared him President-elect.

Sources well briefed on Kremlin affairs tell TIME that as protests in Kiev gathered momentum, Putin urged discredited outgoing President Leonid Kuchma eager to secure a safe retirement amid charges of corruption and political violence to declare Yanukovych the winner. The sources say Putin made it clear that a Yushchenko victory would not be acceptable. If the Russian President sticks to that hard line, it could provoke serious trouble, not only abroad but also at home. "The Russians have raised the stakes," says Stephen Sestanovich of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. "They've made this a very emotional issue domestically, and there will be a lot of people on Putin's nationalist flank saying, 'Are you going to take this lying down?'"

Yanukovych, 54, has made no secret of his pro-Moscow leanings. Just as important, Ukraine's business and political elites have flourished in one of the world's most corrupt economies, and they trust that he won't rock the boat. If Yanukovych seems a throwback to the Soviet era, Yushchenko, 50, wants to bring Ukraine into the free-market age. In opposition, he turned Our Ukraine into a powerful bloc that's threatening to undo the current ruling clan's lock on power.

Almost before the final votes were tallied, international election monitors raised allegations of widespread fraud. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which sent in observers to watch the balloting, there were "highly suspicious and unrealistic" turnouts in key Yanukovych areas. Monitors recorded acts of harassment, intimidation and multiple voting and noted that the list of the country's eligible voters mysteriously grew 5% on Election Day. The OSCE investigated and dismissed as groundless complaints of multiple voting and ballot fixing leveled against Yushchenko's campaign by Yanukovych officials. Senator Richard Lugar, who represented the U.S. at the vote, was scathing in his assessment: "A concerted and forceful program of Election Day fraud and abuse was enacted with either the leadership or cooperation of governmental authorities."

With each day of drama and denunciations, more and more Ukrainians poured into Independence Square to challenge the official outcome. The whole capital was, in the words of a Russian TV correspondent, "one big demonstration." Pro-Yushchenko organizers, some of them trained by the same dissidents who helped coordinate successful electoral revolutions in Serbia and Georgia, rallied volunteers with rock music, puppet shows and free food. Even famed Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa made an appearance, telling the crowd, "I opposed the Soviet Union, and I opposed communism, and I came out victorious. Ukraine has a chance!"

In fact, the institutions of power were already showing cracks. Olexandr Skibinetsky, a general in Ukraine's Security Service, told demonstrators that he shared their "well-founded doubts" about the election. Lieut. General Mikhail Kutsin, the military commander for western Ukraine, said his men would not "act against their own people." In other parts of the country, cities and towns created strike committees and announced campaigns of civil disobedience.

As the tumult in the streets escalated, Yanukovych seemed at a loss. At first, he tried to pretend nothing was wrong. Then he disappeared from public view until last Friday, when he told a crowd of 6,000 miners and metalworkers who had been transported by bus and train to Kiev's central station from the east: "I'll give it to you straight. A creeping coup is taking place. We must do everything possible to prevent this coup from happening." After Parliament called for a fresh vote, many felt that the coup had succeeded. "This is banditry," said Irina, 39, a waitress in a Kiev cafe. "I voted for Yanukovych. He was legally elected. They should have let him start working. I'm scared to think what will become of us now."

However the disputed election finally plays out, it has undermined the Bush Administration's cozy relations with Putin, at least behind the scenes. In his first term, George W. Bush was willing to give Putin a free hand in what Russia calls the near abroad, the states that spun off from the broken Soviet Union. At the same time, Bush has made encouraging democracy around the world a central pillar of his presidency. In Ukraine those two policies clash mightily. Washington spent much of Ukraine's bitterly fought presidential campaign studiously avoiding confrontation with Putin and stuck to that line in the early days after the vote. But at midweek, Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear Washington's support for Yushchenko, saying the U.S. was "deeply disturbed by the extensive and credible reports of fraud." The next day, at an European Union-- Russia summit, Putin emphasized that the dispute should be settled without outside interference. No other country has a "moral right to push a major European state to mass disorder," he warned.

The Kremlin regards countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus as vital buffers between Russia and the West. Like Russian rulers for the past two centuries, Putin "equates security with well-defined zones of interest," says James Sherr, an Eastern Europe specialist at Oxford Uni-versity. Those zones have shrunk in recent years as the Baltic states and Georgia turned sharply toward the West. Putin doesn't want to see the same thing happen in Ukraine.

But analysts in the U.S. are worried that Putin may have overplayed his hand. If he were seen to be encouraging the east in its secessionist plans, the protests could turn violent. As the Ukraine Supreme Court weighs its decision, there will be opportunities for Russia to stir up separatism. Whether that happens will depend on Putin's ability to reconcile traditional Russian interests and fears with the reality of modern Europe, says Michael Emerson of the Center for European Policy in Brussels. "The more Putin pushes realpolitik," he says, "the more Ukrainians will want to go in the other direction."

Those who want Ukraine to one day join the European Union watched last week's events with special interest. The country has been caught in a kind of catch-22, says Andrew Wilson, a lecturer at University College London and author of The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. "Brussels has been reluctant to give an invitation until Ukraine internalizes European values in politics and business, and Ukraine has been unwilling or unable to reform until that invitation is given." The current crisis could prompt both sides to break the impasse.

In Independence Square, Taras Kuchma, a physician from Drogobych, in the west, sarcastically thanked Yanukovych and Putin for having achieved the impossible. "They finally forced the Ukrainians to unite to become a nation," he said. But that unity was not in evidence last week, and it may still turn out to be an impossible dream.

With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington; Helen Gibson/ London; Valeria Korchagina/ Moscow; Tadeusz L. Kucharski/Warsaw; Andrew Purvis/Vienna; Jonathan Shenfield/Paris