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Did Ukraine's presidential election reverse its 'color revolution'?

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

UKRAINE'S ORANGE Revolution erupted in 2004 because of an attempt by Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his proxies to impose on Ukraine a version of Russia's corrupt authoritarianism -- beginning with a fraudulent presidential election. The revolt's success produced a messy but functioning democracy in which elections are hard-fought and unpredictable, the press is free and civil society flourishes. Just more than five years later, the central question is whether that democratic system -- which is what prevents Ukraine from being dominated by Russia -- will survive another presidential election.

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The good news from Sunday's runoff vote between Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych is that so far, democracy has survived. International observers, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, -- which denounced the 2004 vote -- praised it as "professional, transparent and honest" and said it "should serve as a solid foundation for a peaceful transition of power." That's something the OSCE could not say about the past three Russian presidential elections, or the travesties that pass for votes in many of the former Soviet republics that Mr. Putin aspires to incorporate into a Kremlin sphere of influence.

The fact that Mr. Yanukovych, the apparent winner of the runoff, was Mr. Putin's candidate in 2004 while Ms. Tymoshenko was a leader of the Orange coalition has produced understandable but false reports of the revolution's demise. In fact Mr. Yanukovych, who draws most of his support from Ukraine's eastern provinces, learned a lesson in 2004; he now identifies himself with the country's big industrialists, rather than Mr. Putin. Ms. Tymoshenko, whose erratic populism long ago discredited her with Western governments, made her own peace with the Russian ruler last year.

What threatens the Orange Revolution is not candidates or their policies but anti-democratic practices. In that sense, the largest threat at the moment is posed by Ms. Tymoshenko, should she choose to respond to her relatively narrow loss with court challenges and unfounded claims of irregularities. Hard hit by the global economic crisis, Ukraine can ill afford months of pointless infighting and political uncertainty.

In the longer term, Mr. Yanukovych will show whether he is committed to liberal democracy. Will he respect the media, which are populated by free-wheeling Russian television hosts who were driven out of Moscow? Will he fight pervasive corruption and try to strengthen institutions such as the courts? Will future elections remain free?

If Mr. Yanukovych passes those tests, Ukraine will remain a sovereign European country -- and Mr. Putin's authoritarian project will be doomed. That's why it's vital that the United States and other Western governments not turn their backs on Ukraine. The Orange Revolution lives on, for now -- but it will need plenty of support and nurturing in the next few years.


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