Ukraine, with its abundant resources and resourceful population of 47 million (larger than Spain), has become a rising star in Europe since its "Orange Revolution" little over a year ago.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine remained in Russia's orbit, with a retrograde and oppressive government--until its people took to the streets to protest a rigged election in 2004. It was only this month that the U.S. House of Representatives voted to lift Cold War sanctions on Ukraine. Very swiftly, the nation has moved toward democracy and perhaps eventually membership in NATO, the European Union and the World Trade Organization.
But Americans and others who have paid little attention to developments in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution will be shocked to learn that the party headed by Viktor Yanukovych, who won that disputed election and then lost the re-run to Viktor Yushchencko, is actually leading the polls in the parliamentary election scheduled for Sunday.
The election involves no fewer than 44 parties. Yanukovych's Party of Regions is expected to take about a third of the seats. The party is supported financially by Ukraine's richest man, Rynat Akhmetov, who could end up being prime minister in the new parliament, according to a report on Radio Free Europe. The Party of Regions opposes Ukrainian accession to NATO and has strong support from Ukraine's Russian-speaking minority.
The Orange Revolution leaders are split. President Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party has been hurt by scandals and by the natural-gas dispute with Russia. It could end up in third place. Contending for many of the same voters is a bloc headed by Yuliya Tymoshenko, who feuded with Yushchenko and was ousted as prime minister after just eight months. Her bloc has a more populist slant and is calling for improved social services and lower food prices.
While Our Ukraine is probably the most free-market-oriented of the leading parties, it appears that whoever wins will have to put together a coalition that will favor economic policies that favor low taxes and less central control.
In an attempt to cast some light on this important election, I caught up with Ukraine's respected foreign minister, Borys Tarasyuk. When we talked by phone, he was vigorously campaigning. Election laws require the campaign itself to end on Friday.
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, the consensus is that the Ukraine election has been a clean one. A report in the Christian Science Monitor quoted Alexander Chernenko of the Committee of Ukrainian Voters: "There is absolute transparency, and an equal playing field for all parties. There is no fear, no coercion. People feel this is irreversible."
That situation contrasts sharply with neighboring Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko, with close ties to Moscow, was elected to a third term last Sunday with an 83 percent majority which, says the Monitor, "few experts believe to be genuine."
Here is my interview with Tarasyuk, who describes what's happening in the first truly representative election in Ukraine's history:
Jim Glassman: The [Ukrainian] election is March 26.
Borys Tarasyuk: Yes.
Glassman: Can you tell us how the campaign stands right now?
Tarasyuk: Well, there is one more day of campaigning and as of Saturday, campaigning is prohibited. Some political analysts in the Ukraine describe this campaign as rather boring. Perhaps this is in connection with the comparison with the previous Presidential campaign of 2004, which was rather dramatic--causing the Orange Revolution.
Some foreign observers, including the U.S. Embassy, regard this campaign as the clean one. No problems. And these are the realities the new democratic authorities of Ukraine created after the Orange Revolution. The opposition has no problem in its access to the mass media; so it's a normal thing currently to see representatives of the opposition forces in the media and especially on nationwide TV channels.
These are the new realities of Orange Revolution.
Glassman: Could I ask you where your party called "Our Ukraine" stands on issues and how you differentiate yourselves from the Party of Regions--I guess you would say the Tymoshenko block? How are your views different?
Tarasyuk: Well, perhaps the difference is not that visible. At the same time, there are differences. First of all, life is not sparking. This is the coalition, Our Ukraine. For example, I'm the leader of one of the constituent parties: The People's Movement of Ukraine. The coalition, Our Ukraine, consists of six like-minded parties that, before, were members of the same Orange team, the Orange Coalition. So, in terms of programs, there are no visible differences within the bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko, because we were in the same Orange Team before.
Tarasyuk: But the difference lies mostly in personality and ambition-level. Whereas, with the Party of Regents the difference is quite visible. Our Ukraine coalition currently in power has a clear pro-E.U. and pro-NATO stance.
The Party of Regents--which ended up losing power--started to criticize the major fundamentals of our current foreign policy objectives (which actually used to be their own objectives when they were in power). That is: NATO and E.U. membership, including W.T.O. membership. So, these are the major differences, but the differences also are not in the programs, as such. The differences are in the very essence of governing.
While being in power, the Party of Regents used their power for getting profits, super profits out of shallow economies, out of the support of different clans and oligarchies.
Glassman: There's an article in the Sunday Times of London that says "Less than 15 months after he was forced from power, a former Communist hardliner is finalizing his plans to end Ukraine's Orange Revolution." And obviously that is reference to Yanukovych. I think Americans and many others would be surprised to learn that he has a chance to make a come-back. What do you think the chances are that he could actually do that?
Tarasyuk: Well, these are the consequences of a democratic power established in the Ukraine after the Orange Revolution.
Tarasyuk: Should Yanukovych, for example, have been the winner in Presidential campaign, he would not have allowed anything of the kind [opposition] to take place in Ukraine, however.
Tarasyuk: So, we are not retaliating.
Tarasyuk: And that is the difference.
Glassman: Is there a message that you would like to get across to Americans and to other people who believe in freedom and free-market policies? And what is at stake in this election?
Tarasyuk: At stake? There is nothing less at stake than there was during the presidential elections. So much depends on whether the achievements of the Orange Revolution will be supported by the parliamentary elections and local elections.
In order to support the new policy of economic political reforms, I think--without any exaggeration--this is going to be the crucial moment in which the Ukrainian electorate will say whether the Ukraine will finally become a new democracy or not. And I believe they will say "yes". And I think that there will be no change in foreign policy course of our nation after these parliamentary elections. That is: to keep NATO and E.U. membership a foreign policy objective.
Glassman: Thank you, Minister Tarasyuk.
Tarasyuk: You are welcome.
James K. Glassman is a resident fellow at AEI.