So Ukraine has elected a new president. The winner is Viktor Yanukovych. Remember him? He was the bad guy in the Orange Revolution, back at the end of 2004. The voting masses rose up in protest against dirty tricks at the ballot box committed by Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow party and kept at it until their man, Viktor Yushchenko, ended up president. Yushchenko's key ally in that great triumph for democracy was Yulia Tymoshenko. She's the one who lost to Yanukovych on Sunday.
You can see why some people have been saying that the Yanukovych win is a turning point in Ukraine's recent history. Ukrainian political analyst Taras Kuzio cast this year's election as a replay of the Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko, he wrote, represented "European-style democracy," while Yanukovych enjoyed the ominous support of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's very own political party. "The forward-looking choice is clear," Kuzio wrote, "and its [sic] not in the direction of Russia." Russian-American commentator Nina Khrushcheva delivered a glowing portrait of Tymoshenko's democratic attributes and prophesied that a Yanukovych win would mean "the last free vote Ukraine sees for a long time."
And what does Reality Check say? Life goes on. Nothing to see here, people. Move along.
First of all, let's get one thing straight. Ukrainians were absolutely correct to stand up and defend their democratic rights back in 2004. Yanukovych and his party were guilty of egregious election fraud. Moscow supported Yanukovych so openly, and so brutishly, that some Ukrainians presumably ended up voting for his opponent out of sheer spite.
But let's face it. The record since then hasn't exactly been an exercise in the glories of Ukrainian democracy. No sooner had Yushchenko and Tymoshenko achieved power (as president and prime minister, respectively) than they began to indulge in a feud that essentially paralyzed Ukrainian politics for the rest of Yushchenko's term. The result was a long list of non-accomplishments. Kiev-based commentator Mykola Riabchuk, an ex-supporter, ticks off the list: "He failed to bring Ukraine closer to Europe," thus frustrating one of the central demands of the Orange demonstrators. "He failed to separate business and politics" -- another key disappointment for a country where a tiny group of business tycoons wields power constrained only by their competition among themselves. No sooner was the new president elected, Riabchuk notes, than he appointed several of his oligarch supporters to ministerial positions.
Small wonder, then, that Yushchenko didn't make much headway against Ukraine's fantastically stubborn culture of corruption. Last year global corruption watchdog Transparency International gave Ukraine a ranking of 146 on the group's notorious "Corruption Perceptions Index." To offer some context, that was the same rating achieved by Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, East Timor -- and, oh yes, Russia. In 2004, when Yushchenko scored his great victory, Ukraine's ranking was 122. "I don't think that's changed, and no one's tried to change it," says David Marples, a Ukraine-watching history professor at the University of Alberta. "In Ukraine the corruption goes right down to the village level."