Ukraine: A democratic revolution in reverse
NOTE TO EGYPT et al: Democratic revolutions, even when successful, must be defended for years after the euphoric crowds leave the streets. Autocratic forces can regroup and even use democratic institutions to make a comeback. Freedoms can erode as old habits return. Malign neighbors can intervene.
Take Ukraine, whose Orange Revolution in 2004 was as thrilling in its own way as Cairo's Tahrir Square - but where all those forms of backsliding are underway. While Western attention is focused on the exciting upheavals in the Middle East, a strategic European country of 50 million people may be creeping out of the democratic camp.
The retreat is led by Viktor Yanukovych, the same politician whose victory-by-fraud in a presidential election touched off the Orange rebellion. Mr. Yanukovych, a champion of Ukraine's ethnic Russian population and the eastern industrial regions where it predominates, won a fair election for president in 2010, thanks to the bumbling and infighting of the democratic governments that took over after 2004. He claimed to have embraced democratic principles and distanced himself from Russian ruler Vladimir Putin, for whom he had played puppet; he said his government's main aim would be to integrate with the European Union.
The government has, in fact, pursued a free-trade treaty with the E.U. as well as other economic reforms. It has trimmed government bureaucracy and red tape and invested in infrastructure; economic growth was a relatively strong 4.5 percent last year. But Mr. Yanukovych also has made major concessions to Mr. Putin, such as granting the Russian Black Sea fleet basing rights in the port of Sevastopol for another 25 years.
Meanwhile, the government has begun to move against the Orange Revolution's leaders. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is under criminal investigation by a government prosecutor on dubious charges of malfeasance - spending environmental funds on pensions is one count. Her former interior minister was arrested in late December and charged with hiring an official driver who was too old. The former minister of the economy has been granted asylum in the Czech Republic.
Journalists say free media are under pressure from the government. Local elections held last year were marked by serious irregularities. Meanwhile, a court ruling greatly increased Mr. Yanukovych's power by reversing a reform that he himself had favored when he was out of office.
The Obama administration has not ignored these problems. In a strong statement in December, it said the prosecution of Ms. Tymoshenko and her aides "gives the appearance of selective prosecution of political opponents." But during a meeting of the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Commission last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did not publicly mention the political abuses, even as she signed an agreement under which the United States will help Ukraine develop shale gas.
The United States should be pressing harder to stop the democratic erosion. One way to do so is to explicitly link further progress in economic relations with Ukraine to improvements in human rights - and to urge the governments of the European Union to follow suit.