Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Rise of the Rusted Curtain

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, February 9, 2010 --  

The defeat of reformists in Ukraine threatens to leave the country a miserably stunted Russian satellite.

The election of Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine marks a bitter end to the 2004 Orange Revolution that sought to move the country to the West. A Russian-speaking crony of post-Soviet President Leonid Kuchma, Yanukovych earlier served as a governor and prime minister, hailing from the country's Russified east. After being anointed by Kuchma as his successor, his fraudulent election was overturned by the courts after massive street protests defended the Western-oriented candidates.

But five years of infighting, incompetence, and general lack of progress by the Orange parties -- led by defeated President Viktor Yushchenko who received a humiliating five percent of votes in the first round, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who narrowly lost in the second round to Yushenko, has left voters disillusioned with the promises of Western-oriented parties. This leaves Ukraine in a worryingly similar position to Russia when reformist President Boris Yeltsin retired. Exhausted by the hardships and chaos of the immediate post-Soviet years, many Russians were content to see strongman Vladimir Putin return stability to the country, and were perfectly happy to give up their newfound freedoms along the way.

Are Ukrainians about to head down the same path? The fall in public vigilance against the return of strongman rule has clearly created an opening for this possibility. And while Yanukovych has neither the charisma nor the powerful leadership skills of Putin, his background as an insider in an autocratic regime makes the emergence of a powerful, anti-democratic junta from Yanukovych's entourage a real possibility.

Ukraine's lack of strategic resources like oil and natural gas make it impossible for the country to become a real thorn in the side of the West, as has happened with Russia, Venezuela and some Middle Eastern countries. Yet this lack of resources increases the likelihood that Ukraine will be forced into a return of its former satellite status with respect to Russia. Russia supplies the country with natural gas at below-market prices (a holdover from the Soviet era) and thereby wields enormous influence. This influence is heightened by regional differences. A large percentage of Ukrainians in the eastern and southern parts of the country are ethnic Russians or are Ukrainians who have been largely Russified. These Ukrainians speak Russian in the home and, like Yanukovych, do not even speak the Ukrainian language fluently.

If Yanukovych's holds to his campaign positions, the country will clearly be moving closer to Russia. He has promised to abandon Ukraine's application for NATO membership, and halt his predecessor's plan to kick the Russian Navy out of its base on the Crimean peninsula. While these are certainly reasonable positions to take, the open question is whether Yanukovych will be willing to stand up to Russia when push comes to shove.

If these two fears come to pass -- if Ukraine becomes undemocratic, and loses its de-facto independence from Moscow -- then a new line will be drawn through Europe. This rusted curtain will be far more permeable than the iron curtain of the Cold War, but the divide between the sides of Europe will be nearly as stark.

Just to the west of the Ukrainian frontier, the former centrally planned, basket case country of Romania has joined NATO, the European Union, and recently agreed to anger Russia by hosting an American anti-missile system. The county has enacted economic reforms needed to attract foreign investment, and its economy grew at a high single digit growth rate throughout the late 2000s. An even bigger contrast can be seen to the northwest of Ukraine, where Poland has long been the star pupil of the former communist block, and to a large extent has successfully restructured its economy along Western lines.

Ukraine, meanwhile, remains largely stuck in its post-Soviet rut. Unwilling or unable to make needed reforms, the country gets by with remnants of Soviet industry and a few new post-Soviet oligarchic enterprises. Without the petroleum resources of nearby Russia, the country is falling further behind the rest of the world. After taking a big hit with the global financial crisis, Ukrainian GDP is hardly bigger than in Soviet times.

The economic stagnation and political regression of Ukraine is a shame. That such stunted countries exist in a world full of promise is sad enough. It's sadder still to watch one lose hope only five years after a revolution filled with so much promise.

Related Web Columns:

Abandoning Friends, September 22, 2009

Revolution for a Slow Decline, November 23, 2004