Despite leadership failings, nation more mature than five years ago

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Nov. 26, 2009, 9:54 p.m. | Op-ed — by Oleh Rybachuk

A couple relaxes in front of a billboard for presidential candidates Sergei Tigipko, left, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Kyiv. Voting in Ukraine’s presidential election is scheduled for Jan. 17, with a second round three weeks later.
© AP

Oleh Rybachuk and Taras Chornovil write: The country needs more responsible citizenry to make the political elite more responsible. Konrad Adenauer, the former German chancellor, said: “History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.” It is an appropriate epigraph to what Ukraine has lived through since the Orange Revolution five years ago last weekend.

There are different views on what happened, but it is clear there are no winners and losers. Ukraine has been united by common disillusionment.

The bitter taste of frustration gave people some hope. Perhaps politicians are still not fully aware, but Ukrainians have become wiser and more mature. Upcoming presidential elections on Jan. 17 no longer split the country: people understand they are regular occurrences and not an irreversible choice.

No longer do people perceive political leaders as either godlike messiahs or synonyms for national disaster. Lower expectations and fears will enable us to vote using not only our emotions but our wisdom as well. Whoever becomes president will not be an icon, and people will try to use the institutions of civil society to force them to keep their pre-election promises. We are gradually returning to fundamental European principles for how politicians are elected and interact with the electorate.

In the same way, presidential candidates know the emotional background of the previous election is unlikely to be repeated. Although they played the traditional blame games afterwards, they have also made more of an effort to persuade us which of them would be the best manager of the country. They may slip into populism, but their discussions of who is better at taking care of social standards or at fighting the financial crisis will not split the country. Some will still hunger for absolute power, but we have learned how to combat that.

There was no festive mood on the day of the anniversary last weekend, but the Orange Revolution has set the foundations of the country Ukraine must become.

First there was the emergence of real political competition. No one has a monopoly on politics, business or mass media any more, and those in power cannot abuse the resources at hand. In the parliamentary campaigns of 2006 and 2007, the opposition gained the upper hand. The country is now in the middle of a presidential campaign and again the opposition looks set to win.

The most frequently mentioned result of what took place five years ago in Independence Square is the arrival of freedom of speech. It is now taken for granted by Ukrainians but it must be continuously guarded by civil society as something very precious and fragile.

Another achievement, which has been overshadowed by the global economic crises, was the long-awaited accession to the World Trade Organization as well as noticeable progress in the European integration process. The latter gives Ukrainian businesses a chance to access the largest market in the world.

To understand Ukraine one has to understand its history. There was no well-established democratic tradition and no time-tested checks and balances of government or political culture. There remains rocketing corruption, and the irresponsible ruling elite are not concentrating on the vital issues facing Ukraine, even as the world has fallen into one of its most severe financial crises.

Increasingly, we hear from Europe and the United States that they are “fed up with Ukraine.” But while one can be frustrated with individual Ukrainian politicians whom were often indulged by Europe and the U.S., one should not be disappointed with the country as a whole.

Today Ukraine is more mature than it was five years ago. And any partial rejection of Ukraine by the democratic world, which is occasionally inspired by our partners in Russia, may become an unfair and very dangerous blow in this complicated period.

Today it is important to give Ukraine clear conditions for Europen Union membership, using small, specific steps such as action plans and supervision. Deepening integration will follow. One priority must be to build a transparent energy security system which involves Ukraine, Russia and Europe.

Ukraine is on the eve of its presidential elections. There is a strong feeling that it does not matter who wins, but how the position will be influenced, monitored and controlled by the Ukrainian people. The country needs a more responsible citizenry to make the political elite more responsible.

Oleh Rybachuk was chief of staff to President Victor Yushchenko in 2005. Taras Chornovil was chief of Victor Yanukovych's presidential campaign in 2004. This opinion appeared in the Nov. 23 Financial Times and is reprinted with the authors’ permission.
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