THE BLOG

The Rough Road to Democracy

09/29/2007 03:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 2004, the world was captivated by the sight of up to one million Ukrainians demanding freedom in what would become known as the "Orange Revolution." Almost three years later, the country has become an example of the difficulties faced by corrupt, authoritarian states as they transition to democracy and the rule of law. Its troubles should provide lessons to those who would suggest democracy can be created quickly from outside.

On Sunday, Ukrainians will go to the polls for the third time since the Orange Revolution in their latest step toward creating a government that can free the country from corruption and the Soviet legacy. Progress following the heady days of the revolution has been slow, with reforms stalled and political infighting the predominant sport.

In this latest election, voters will again decide between the agenda of President Viktor Yushchenko -- the man for whom so many stood up in 2004 - and that of his defeated former presidential opponent Viktor Yanukovych. In essence, they again will choose whether the country will strive for the goals expressed during the Orange Revolution, or whether the "old guard" will take charge. In a Ukraine disappointed in the work of their leaders since 2004, the result of the vote is too close to call.

Yushchenko remains committed to EU, NATO and WTO membership for his country, which is one of the world's top weapons exporters and top producers of steel, and is the largest gas transit country from Russia to Europe. Yanukovych has shown little real enthusiasm for Western integration.

Following the revolution, Yushchenko was unable to consolidate power and could not accomplish many promised reforms. In frustration, he fired his popular first prime minister and former revolution ally, Yulia Tymoshenko. In a move he now calls "a mistake," he then turned to his former opponent Yanukovych, who was approved as prime minister in the name of "unity." Because the president and prime minister do not agree on basic issues of reform, the country has since been mired in political stagnation.

Instead of conducting meaningful debate, the parliament, where Yanukovych held a slim majority, became a battleground. The president, who was unable to enact legislation, reunited with Tymoshenko and dissolved the parliament elected just one year ago. Campaigning began anew, and the cycle began again.

Given all of this, after a "revolution," shouldn't we expect more? Well, maybe not.

While the Orange Revolution was a time of great hope, nearly 70 years of Soviet rule and 15 more of creeping authoritarianism and corruption left Ukraine with few traditions of transparent governance, rule of law, or open debate. Despite a new understanding of the potential power of protest, and a boldness on the part of many journalists, the lack of these basic Western traditions continues to handicap reform.

Ukraine's political leaders grew up during the Soviet Union. They studied Lenin, Marx and Stalin. What they know about governing a "democracy" they've learned on the job. It seems that changing the foundations on which a country functions takes more than a few years - and more than a little trial and error. "Democracy," in fact, is not inherently understood.

Still, despite these continuing problems, today's Ukraine is not the Ukraine that existed prior to the Orange Revolution. Then, the country was ruled by fear. Journalists and opposition politicians disappeared. And the people felt helpless. Now, there is freedom and hope. And there is the possibility to change things through the ballot box, based on a new, vibrant political pluralism. The country should be proud it has come so far, and that many of its leaders continue to push further.

But in the last weeks of the campaign, worrying signs have emerged, with charges of election fraud steadily increasing. Only Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have said they will accept the results of the election. Yanukovych, whose party has seen a small drop in support, has said he is prepared to "bring people to the streets." Tymoshenko's support for an examination of what she calls the corrupt activities of current government officials could provide added incentive to the authorities to remain in power using inappropriate means.

It is clear, however, that should either side resort to non-peaceful, non-democratic methods during or after the election, progress already made could be lost, and Ukraine's relationships with its Western allies undermined. The response of Ukraine's political leaders during and following Sunday's election, will demonstrate how far the country has come on the road to democracy - and how far it has to go.

Tammy Lynch is a Senior Research Fellow at Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy. Her work in Ukraine is also supported by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.