Orange Revolution Tossed in Trashcan

The victory of the “pro-Russian” Opposition candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, in Ukraine’s presidential election was greeted with dismay in the West as a setback to the “orange revolution” the United States and Europe helped orchestrate in the country five years ago.

The western media, however, took some consolation from the fact that the 2010 election was a clean and democratic race. This, they said, stood in stark contrast to the 2004 election, which was rigged in favour of  Yanukovych, provoking large-scale street protests in capital Kiev. The “orange revolution” overturned  Yanukovych’s victory and vaulted his pro-western rival, Viktor Yushchenko, into presidency.  Yanukovych has since become “contaminated with the ‘Orange virus’,” as The Times put it, and the bad guy of the 2004 poll won a fraud-free election.

How far does this story square with reality? It would be interesting to compare the results of the 2004 and 2010 elections. In 2004,  Yanukovych polled 49.46 per cent of the votes against  Yushchenko’s 46.61 in the run-off that was later overturned by the “orange revolution.” The 2010 vote tally was remarkably similar:  Yanukovych garnered 48.95 per cent against 45.47 for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, former “orange” ally-turned-foe of  Yushchenko.

Could it be just a coincidence? Hardly so, if we look at the way the Ukrainian regions voted in both elections. In 2004,  Yanukovych won 80-90 per cent of the votes in Russian-speaking eastern and southern provinces and  Yushchenko received just as strong support in the western and central regions, oriented towards Europe. The east-west divide was strikingly evident again in the 2006 parliamentary election, in which  Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions won most votes.

In the Yanukovych-Tymoshenko faceoff in 2010, the pattern of voting was once again the same — the east and south voted for  Yanukovych, and the west and the centre gave their votes to Ms Tymoshenko. This means the support base of the pro-Russian and pro-western candidates remains the same as it was five years ago. Those who voted for  Yanukovych in 2004 backed him again in 2010.

The identical results refute the claim that in 2004,  Yanukovych’s returns were heavily padded, and in 2010 they were not. Yet the same western observers who denounced  Yanukovych’s victory in 2004 as fraudulent, in 2010 hailed it as “an impressive display of democratic elections.” Interestingly, the 2004 electoral violations were never properly investigated, and nobody was punished maybe because, as many analysts claimed, both sides resorted to rigging.

In 2004, the U.S. and other NATO countries refused to accept the legitimacy of  Yanukovych’s election and sent a high-power team of “mediators” to Kiev to push for a cancellation of the vote. A re-run of the run-off between  Yanukovych and  Yushchenko brought victory to the “orange revolution” leader with the score 52-44. However, the outcome was heavily impacted by media hysteria over alleged vote rigging and the West’s massive support for the Opposition leader.

This year, western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, congratulated  Yanukovych on his victory without even waiting for the losing side to take its case to court. The West ignored  Tymoshenko’s allegation that electoral fraud in the eastern and southern regions was just as bad as in 2004 and exceeded the 10,00,000-vote lead the official count gave to  Yanukovych. “The so-called Orange Revolution … was essentially political theatre (or political circus) not more legitimate than the presidential elections that it overturned,” says analyst Vladimir Belaeff of the U.S. Global Society Institute.

Why did the U.S. and Europe in 2010 hail the victory of a man whom they denounced as a crook five years earlier? The western media called it the “Ukraine fatigue” — disappointment with the inefficient leadership in the past five years.

“Yushchenko proved to be one of the least competent politicians ever elected head of state,” writes U.S. Republican conservative Doug Bandow, former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. “Ukrainian politics has been marred by corruption, vote fraud, brutal infighting and violence.”

During  Yushchenko’s presidency, bribery and cronyism have ballooned; his self-destructive war with the “orange” princess, Tymoshenko, paralysed decision-making. Living standards declined, prices soared as the global crisis shattered Ukraine’s commodity-sector economy.

“Ukraine’s under-reformed economy teeters on the edge of national bankruptcy, the rule of law is elusive, courts remain corrupt and the parliament resembles a trading platform for business tycoons in which deals are made and seats bought and sold,” The Economist fumed.

However, the main reason for the “Ukraine fatigue” in the West lies in Yushchenko’s foreign, rather than domestic, policies. His top-priority goals were to drag Ukraine into NATO, throw out the Russian Navy from its Soviet-era naval base in Sevastopol and turn the Black Sea into a NATO lake. However, Ukrainian voters rejected  Yushchenko’s anti-Russian policy, eliminating him from the presidential race with a dismal 5 per cent of the votes. To save her campaign,  Tymoshenko made a U-turn, from criticising Russia to vowing to rebuild close ties with Moscow. “As Yushchenko dramatically demonstrated, even the most committed pro-American candidate could not force his countrymen in a direction which they opposed,” said  Bandow, who today works for the Cato Institute.

Yushchenko failed to advance the strategic objective of the U.S. “orange” project — tear away Ukraine from Russia and deny Russia a strategic reach in Europe and the Caucasus. As the former U.S. National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, wrote in his famous book The Great Chessboard: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire in Eurasia.” “The Orange Revolution is dead,”  Bandow wrote in the National Interest journal.

The end of the “orange” regime alters the balance of power in Eastern Europe. “Relations with Russia and the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russia-dominated loose alliance of former Soviet republics] will be our priority,”  Yanukovych said in his first statement after winning the run-off. “Our countries are closely tied by economy, history and culture.”

Yanukovych has voiced support for the Russian proposal to set up an international consortium to manage the Ukrainian gas pipelines, and called for joining the Customs Union Russia has set up with Kazakhstan and Belarus. This shift is dictated by economic realities: Russia meets 80 per cent of Ukraine’s gas needs and, together with other former Soviet states, accounts for 34 per cent of Ukrainian exports. Russia is Ukraine’s best hope of avoiding imminent national bankruptcy by playing “the role of ‘Abu Dhabi’ to Ukraine’s ‘Dubai’,” as The Wall Street Journal put it.

Yanukovych has ruled out NATO membership for Ukraine and signalled his readiness to consider extending the basing rights of the Russian Black Sea Naval base in Sevastopol beyond 2017, when the current lease agreement expires. Without Ukraine, the U.S.-built cordon sanitaire around Russia will fall apart. Georgia, which is still reeling from the thrashing Russia gave it in a five-day war in 2008, has lost a valuable ally.

The U.S. is unlikely to accept these strategic shifts. In contrast to the heady days of the “orange revolution,” Washington did not openly interfere with the 2010 election in Ukraine. Some suggested that  Obama did not want to jeopardise his policy of “reset” with Russia.

However, Washington has repeatedly stated in recent months that the “reset” does not mean U.S. recognition of Russia’s special interests in the former Soviet Union. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the point in a keynote address at Ecole Militaire in France last month. “We object to any spheres of influence claimed in Europe in which one country seeks to control another’s future,” she said.

The newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, John Tefft (whose previous assignment was Georgia), made it clear that the U.S. would continue its policy of driving a wedge between Ukraine and Russia. “…We have some serious differences with the Russians over the way they conduct relations with their neighbors,” he said in one of his first interviews to the Ukrainian media. “The administration has been quite clear about the Russians in Georgia, and we have been very clear in stressing our support for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity in all of these countries, including Ukraine.”

The envoy said Washington remained committed to the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine.

“With regard to NATO, the Bucharest [2008 NATO summit] decision was made that Ukraine will become a member,” Ambassador Tefft said. Unless Moscow and Washington agree to extend their “reset” to the former Soviet space, the Ukrainian election will set the stage for a renewed battle for influence in Eurasia.

From Reset to Reset

Despite  Obama’s promise, the White House has made no move to get Congress to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment that denied normal trade benefits to the Soviet Union until it allowed its Jews to freely immigrate to Israel. The U.S. continues to stall Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization. Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov has  reported to Mr. Putin that the U.S. was the main obstacle to Russian accession and that it showed no interest in settling the differences.

The past year showed that notwithstanding the “reset,” the Obama administration is still committed to the policy of containment of Russia. Four months after U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden announced the “reset” policy at a security conference in Munich, he visited Ukraine and Georgia to demonstrate support for the leaders of the “color revolutions” and their NATO aspirations. During a high-profile tour of Eastern Europe in October,  Biden announced “not negotiable” principles in relations with Russia: the U.S. “will not tolerate” any “spheres of influence,” and Russia’s “veto power” on the eastward expansion of NATO. He reiterated Washington’s commitment to the policy of regime change on the Russian periphery, asking East Europe to help the U.S. “guide” former Soviet states to democracy. The U.S. has moved to re-arm and train the Georgian army in the face of explicit Russian concerns that Georgia may be planning a new war to avenge its defeat in 2008.

At  the Ecole Militaire in France.U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted the same principles in a keynote address She went a step further, rejecting Mr. Medvedev’s proposal to negotiate a new security pact for Europe, which Moscow sees as a litmus test of the West’s readiness to accept the principle of equal and indivisible security on the continent.

A few days earlier, Poland announced that the U.S. would deploy Patriot missile on its territory, less than 70 km from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. Warsaw and Washington agreed on the deployment after Russia threatened to station Iskander ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad in response to the stationing of U.S. interceptor missiles in Poland. Now that Obama has scrapped the missile deployment in Poland and Russia withdrew its Iskander threat, the U.S. decision to go ahead with the Patriot is seen in Moscow as a patently hostile move. The Russian military promised to beef up its defenses in the region.

It is of little surprise, therefore, that Russian analysts take an increasingly pessimistic view of the prospects for the “reset.” Sergey Rogov, director of Russia’s top think-tank, the Institute of the United States and Canada, describes the “reset” as merely “political rhetoric” and “more of a slogan that changed the atmosphere in Russian-U.S. relations” but “has not yet become a well thought-out strategy.”

Other experts suggest that the Obama team invented the “reset” concept to win Russia’s cooperation on two top foreign policy priorities — Afghanistan and Iran. On Afghanistan, Russia has gone along with the U.S. because it has a vital stake in countering the threat of terrorism and narcotics from that country. However, Moscow has refused to subscribe to Washington’s bully policy on Iran, casting itself in the role of an intermediary between Iran and the West and declining to fold up nuclear energy and defence cooperation with Tehran.

“There is a view that the American ‘reset’ is mostly a PR smokescreen,” and “part of a wider PR process to improve U.S. influence in the world,” says analyst Vladimir Belaeff of the U.S. Global Society Institute.

When  Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red reset button last year, she goofed up on the Russian translation for “reset.” The symbolic gift had the word peregruzka (overcharge) printed on it instead of perezagruzka (reset). The next day, Russian daily Kommersant ran a front-page headline: “Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton push the wrong button.”

VLADIMIR RADYUHIN is the Moscow  correspondent of The Hindu, where this piece also appears.