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17 March, 2011  ▪  William Schreiber

Ukraine Is Not Egypt

The USA is aware that it must cooperate with the current Ukrainian government

It is no secret that certain U.S. circles were sorely disappointed with Viktor Yanukovych’s victory in the presidential election. Seen to be a Moscow favorite by many, Mr. Yanukovych embodied the depression Washington felt after ardently supporting the color revolutions at the turn of the millennium.

Foreign Policy carried an article with a very telling title: “Yanukovych Won. Get Over It.” A small cohort of optimistic realists who populate the think tanks in the U.S. capital began to search for ways to deny this generally accepted dogma. Democracy had the chance to have its word in Ukraine, and after the disastrous years of Mr. Yushchenko’s rule some stability would be good to have. Some people claimed that it would do Yulia Tymoshenko good to have some free time outside the political establishment.

Some people disagreed with this from the very beginning — most notably diaspora organizations which knew that problems with Ukrainian identity would be unavoidable. The right-wing Heritage Foundation also took the election results as an opportunity to criticize steps they perceived as the Obama administration reconciling its policy toward Russia despite the agreement between Kyiv and Moscow to prolong the stay of Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine.

The press and NGO community also remained staunch critics of Mr. Yanukovych and mostly supported Ms. Tymoshenko. Her hard-working press service should be given its due. In the 10 months of Mr. Yanukovych’s presidency she has given about 10 interviews to the international press which spawned dozens of op-ed columns, blogs, and Twitter posts.

In contrast, the English-speaking world has had only about three interviews from Mr. Yanukovych in the past year. In his latest interview to The Washington Post he confused statistics and gave a harsh answer to a question about journalists.

The Washington-based Freedom House, which publishes country ratings based on open society principles, triggered an outburst of emotions when it lowered Ukraine’s status from free to partly free. And this is an altogether different weight class. Despite a relatively small difference — one point down from last year on the overall 2–14 scale — it is hard to miss the message behind this demotion.

However, the Ukrainian president took much effort to let the world know about himself in his first days in office. Soon after the election he went to Washington presumably to dispel fears. He brought with him the remainder of Ukraine's 80 kilograms of enriched uranium to the nuclear security summit, which earned him a pretty good photo session and words of approval from President Obama.

But the persecution of the opposition and a more active SBU in Ukraine came as a surprise to many, even though from the viewpoint of international politics Mr. Yanukovych was an ideal candidate to restore friendly relations with Russia. On-the-ground reports were alarming but eventually failed to amount to a stumbling block. Even if the removal of the orange team saddened the American foreign-policy establishment, it seemed that they were going to endure it.

Relations between the USA and the Yanukovych administration in the first year of Yanukovych's presidency were marked by forced friendliness. From time to time and out of the sense of duty, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv expressed concerns over “selective persecution of the opposition” and the freedom of journalists and TV and radio broadcasting networks — further suppression of democracy could complicate cooperation between the two countries. The silent message was that Washington was ready to accept the status quo.

But today, when numerous protests are sweeping across the Arab world, a new way of enthusiasm about the spread of democracy may mean that Washington will begin to put more pressure on Mr. Yanukovych. Egypt is transforming the U.S. perception of the world, and Ukraine is no exception here. Now, after the USA has exchanged building democracy for pragmatism, the country may look back and review the things it can achieve using value-based international politics.

Adrian Karatnycky, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Program on Transatlantic Relations, claims that Washington is now in the process of a large-scale review of what may happen if democracy will need to be defended abroad. However, the Obama has administration consciously started to regress from the high ideals of Carter, Reagan, and George Bush. But this trend may be reversed after Egypt.

“A city of tendencies and trends, Washington has always been contagious. The political community here gravitates toward the art of the possible,” Mr. Karatnycky told me. “In the past four or five years, many democratic projects have gone awry, but now, looking at Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, the attitude will change.”

This transformation is highly likely to be already underway, at least if we believe the rhetoric of the U.S. Department of State. Hillary Clinton called for the empowerment of people last month when she met with her Ukrainian counterpart, Foreign Minister Kostiantyn Gryshchenko.

“The truth is that Ukraine is well positioned to realize its own citizens’ hope for a genuine democracy and a prosperous economy,” said Ms. Clinton in her address at the U.S. Department of State. “It has an educated, innovative population, deep foundations of democracy, including a vibrant civil society.”

Americans have to remember that Ukraine is not Egypt. According to the latest polls, about a third of this democratic population supports the Yanukovych administration. This is no surprise because the attack of the current president against free society does not even come close to the Mubarak regime, which outlawed, among other things, public opinion polls.

In such a divided and unstable system as Ukraine, Mr, Yanukovych’s score is low but not critical. Any comparison with Egypt is out of the question: support for Mubarak was estimated to be below 3% – the same level of unpopularity Viktor Yushchenko had in Ukraine.

In addition to discontent, Ukraine also lacks broadband capacity. What is missed here is that Washington residents are not the only ones who seek inspiration on CNN pages. It is unlikely that Ms. Tymoshenko recently opened her official Twitter account by sheer coincidence.

Since Egypt labelled itself with the tag “Twitter revolution,” first coined in Moldova in 2009, Ms. Tymoshenko certainly hopes to become the next one to get this legendary title. However, the chances of a true Twitter coup emerging in Ukraine are small. Unlike Egypt, Ukraine lacks broadband capacity per capita. While as many as 25% of Egyptians use the Internet, only 15% of Ukrainians have Internet access.

Despite warnings from Clinton, there is sufficient reason to believe that the USA is now ready to work with the current government — even if it is only partly free — which is not so bad.
This meeting largely brought positive American investments to Ukraine in a variety of domains — from cooperation in human trafficking prevention and HIV/AIDS treatment to the energy exploration, in particular an assessment of Ukraine’s alternative gas sources by the U.S. Geological Service.

Washington residents are just beginning to smell the sweet spring wind of change in the air, but in the case of Ukraine American politicians may already be on the right track. Not all kinds of medicine produce the same results in a democracy, so one cannot pretend that there is magic cocktail of the Internet media, civil society, and street protests.

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