Ukraine's President Blamed For Derailing Democracy

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In the months since Ukraine voted in President Viktor Yanukovich, critics say the country has steadily moved away from western standards of democracy. Before him, the Orange Revolution brought in leaders who spoke of freedom and hope.


It seemed that a former Soviet Republic had chosen its own future when the Orange Revolution swept through Ukraine six years ago. U.S. and European leaders applauded when Ukrainians poured into the streets demanded democracy. Now, as NPR's David Greene reports, that nation's story has swung back the other way.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

DAVID GREENE: These were thought to be the sounds of a country writing the final chapter of a painful history. From Soviet rule to open democracy and integration with Europe. The Orange Revolution brought leaders who spoke of freedom and hope.�That storyline has been derailed.

This past February, Ukrainians elected a president named Viktor Yanukovich. Join NATO? No way, he said. The Orange Revolution - he called that a failure. And these days, journalists complain of pressure to drop stories the government doesn't like. Yanukovich has also brought Ukraine into a new friendship with its eastern neighbor, Russia. Where's that revolutionary spirit?

Mr. RICHARD WIKE (Pew Research Center): You've seen a waning in confidence in democracy in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region.

GREENE: Richard Wike is associate director of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project. And just before Yanukovich was elected, Wike polled people in former Soviet and Eastern bloc countries. The results were dramatic. In places like Poland and former East Germany, people celebrated democracy and capitalism - not in Ukraine, where only one in 10 said political changes in the post-Soviet era have benefited ordinary people. Some of Wike's questions had also been asked just after the 1991 Soviet collapse, such as: What do you prefer, a strong leader or a democratic system?

Mr. WIKE: And the number of people saying a strong leader has gone up notably in Ukraine over the last two decades. So people still want democratic freedoms and institutions. But I think they've lost some of their confidence about the ability of democracy to solve their problems.

GREENE: If the 2004 Orange Revolution was supposed to begin the era of democracy, the political chaos and the economic woes that followed only gave Ukrainians fresh doubts about a more open political system.

(Soundbite of ringing bell)

GREENE: During Soviet times, many citizens would vacation here, in the city of Lviv. It's a charming outpost near the Polish border, the western edge of where Soviet citizens could generally travel.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: I was in town recently as a quiet protest echoed through the main square. Religious leaders sang, waved placards and circled the mayor's office, bashing his policies. What a departure from Soviet times, when demonstrating against a local leader invited a crack-down. But Vladimir Gilenko, who was taking in the scene, was in no mood to praise democracy.

Mr. VLADIMIR GILENKO: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: This is fine, he said. But it's small. What's the use?

Gilenko is 53 years old, a grizzled unemployed factory worker. He's no fan of his president. Still, he said, give Yanukovich some time, to see if deeper economic ties with Russia might start helping ordinary people. Gilenko remembers those cold nights in Kiev, calling out for democracy.

Mr. GILENKO: (Through Translator) People were united for the first time, and probably the last time. I took part in that revolution, and it let us down. People expected after the Orange Revolution, that milk and honey would flow over the land.

GREENE: The drive for democracy, overwhelmed by disappointment with the most recent experiment. It's not unlike what you hear from Russians, who recall chaos under Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet collapse. Many Russians say they never want to try that again.

Ms. KATERINA SARAMAKA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Even younger Ukrainians have lost their spirit. Katerina Saramaka is 22, struggling to pay for graduate school after her father lost his job. He was the victim of what she describes as the president's corrupt economic policies. Still, Saramaka isn't convinced life for her family would be any easier if those champions of democracy from the Orange Revolution were in charge.

Ms. SARAMAKA: (Through Translator) People today are just indifferent towards those in power. There's so much disappointment here. And nobody is sure where we're headed. But I believe one of those moments will come again.

GREENE: If another democratic revolution comes, those leading it will have their chance to win over a skeptical audience.

David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

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