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Ukraine without Viktor Yushchenko: a counterfactual history, or ‘What if?’

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Dec. 5, 2007, 11:42 p.m. |
As democratic stability, national consolidation and economic growth take root, the president will not need to wait for history’s verdict ndeed, many of his erstwhile supporters from the Orange Revolution days believe he has departed from one of the Revolution’s key promises: the call to “punish the bandits” by vigorously prosecuting those guilty of corruption under the regime of former President Leonid Kuchma.

Particularly harsh are the assessments of the chattering classes, the blogs, and the numerous Internet sites, where opinions come as cheap as the remuneration. To judge by all the instant analysis, President Yushchenko’s tenure in office has been a colossal failure.

How then is it that under President Yushchenko’s term in office Ukraine has moved steadily toward the deepening of democratic processes, the independence of state media, and dynamic — if uneven — economic growth?

For a different perspective than that of the short-term memory span of the bloggers, let’s step back and reconsider. And in reconsidering, let’s make use of the newest, most provocative form of historiography — the counterfactual.

Counterfactual history is an exercise that historians use to answer “what if” questions. For example, in the 1930s Winston Churchill wrote a “what if “ essay that looked at what would have happened had Robert E. Lee and the Confederate forces won the battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. More recently, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has added impetus to the genre, with his collection of counterfactual scenarios entitled “Virtual History.”

To assess the Yushchenko contribution to Ukraine’s transformation, let’s employ our own counterfactual. Let’s imagine where today’s Ukraine would be without Viktor Yushchenko.

Let’s start with the most basic factor: economic growth. As head of the central bank, Yushchenko was central to taming inflation, creating a national currency, helping Ukraine’s economy sustain momentum in the wake of the 1998 Russian stock market meltdown, and contributed to an economic environment that allowed Ukraine’s economy to turn around and begin a period of sustained growth.

As prime minister, he introduced sound fiscal principles and brought a national budget into macro-economic balance. As a result of his and Yulia Tymoshenko’s efforts, the state was able to collect adequate revenues for energy and pay back long-term arrears to schoolteachers, medical care practitioners and pensioners.

While it is likely that without Yushchenko Ukraine would have eventually turned its economy around, such a turnaround would have come much later and Ukraine’s standard of living would probably be much lower than it is today. That lower growth also would have meant the recent annual spikes in energy prices would have had a far more serious impact on GDP and Ukrainian consumers than they did in the context of a more prosperous and more dynamic economy.

Imagine, too, where Yulia Tymoshenko would be todayhad there been no Viktor Yushchenko. It was then Prime Minister Yushchenko who insisted on naming her his deputy prime minister for the energy sector, and in doing so placed her on the national political stage.

At the time, Tymoshenko’s image was that of a rich oligarch recently aligned with the disgraced and corrupt ex-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. It was her tenure in Yushchenko’s government that allowed Tymoshenko to earn a reputation as an effective manager and a hard-hitting fighter against corruption in the energy sector.

In the end, Yushchenko was central not only to Tymoshenko’s entry into high government politics, but also her image as a political martyr. Because her forthright actions in Yushchenko’s government provoked the anger of Kuchma-era energy oligarchs, Tymoshenko was eventually dismissed and later imprisoned, contributing mightily to her eventual popularity.

Thus, without Viktor Yushchenko, there would likely have been no Tymoshenko as deputy prime minister, and therefore no Tymoshenko as incorruptible and popular reform hero.

Imagine, too, what would have beenthe prospects for an Orange Revolution.

Without Viktor Yushchenko as a strong consolidating figure capable of bringing together a disparate array of political forces, there would have been no tight presidential race, no need for massive voter fraud and, therefore, no Orange Revolution.

At that time, in 2003-4, Yulia Tymoshenko’s popularity was hovering at around 10 percent, and there was only one potential standard bearer for the reformers who were intent on reversing corrupt, authoritarian rule. Again, Viktor Yushchenko was indispensable to the result, and only he could have mobilized the kind of mass turnout that was required to prevail.

So, without an Orange Revolution and a Yushchenko candidacy, power would have remained in the hands of the Kuchma-era oligarchic clans.Moreover, there would have been no press revolt against the censorship and the ‘temnyky.’ And there would have been no rotation of power in Ukraine’s then-authoritarian system.

Let’s take our argument further. In a Ukraine without Yushchenko as president, there would have been no checks and balances on the avarice of the politicians in the Regions Party. The Regions Party itself would not have begun to diversify into distinct liberal, pro-reform versus old-school, authoritarian camps.

And in 2007, as legislators from the opposition were being seduced to join the party of power with promises of access to wealth and influence, without Viktor Yushchenko, there would have been no one in a position to use the power of the presidency to force new elections. Thus: no Yushchenko, no democratic coalition in parliament, no matter how fragile it looks today.

So, think of the “what if” of a Ukraine without Yushchenko. Ukraine today would have a poorer and far weaker economy and would be far more dependent on Russia. There would be no Yulia Tymoshenko as a preeminent reform leader. There would have been no Orange Revolution, no free media, no reformer as president,no new parliamentary elections, and no new democratic coalition. What there would have been, most likely, isa Ukraine in which a weak opposition faced a powerful incumbent authoritarian state in a system that more closely resembles the guided “democracy” we seein Russia.

All this is not to say President Yushchenko’s tenure has not been characterized by some mistakes and a weak start. But much of that was occasioned by infighting within the Orange political camp at a time when the president’s state of health was precarious and his energy level was down as he recovered from a near-fatal poisoning.

Still, although the politician and President Viktor Yushchenko has not been exempt from political errors, his decisions at key junctures have withstood the test of time. That’s why my money is on the Yushchenko presidency. Like Lech Walesa, in the short term, President Yushchenko may be judged harshly by some of his contemporaries. But history will regard him as a major figure who helped steer Ukraine to sovereignty and freedom.

And, my guess is that as democratic stability, national consolidation and economic growth take root, the president will not need to wait for history’s verdict.

In two years, Ukrainian voters will, likely, assess his time in office in a broad context. They will recognize his historic contributions and see in him a leader of centrist inclinations, who has steered the country from crisis to stability, rejected populism in favor of concrete measures that promote economic growth,worked diligently to forge a national consensus that could unite Ukraine’s east and west, andsought compromise, not the settling of scores. If they do so, they are certain to reward him with a second term.

Adrian Karatnycky is Senior Scholar at the Atlantic Council of the US and Founder and President of the Orange Circle, a network of international friends of Ukraine.
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