The handwringers and gloaters are out in force since Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko fired his entire Cabinet last Thursday, including the mercurial, attractive, never-to-be-underestimated populist prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Ordinary Ukrainians are, momentarily at least, disillusioned. Their collective response says, "All politicians are the same, look what we get when we participate in a supposedly democratic political process -- the same old corruption." Russia's President Vladimir Putin is fairly floating over his imperial throne warbling, "I told you so. I knew it would never work. Soon Ukraine will be back in Russia's orbit."

Not so fast, folks. Ukraine's recent history suggests otherwise. In 1993, Leonid Kuchma, then prime minister under President Leonid Kravchuk, was sacked after just a few months. He returned to power in 1994 as president, strengthened by a combination of three forces:

(1) Sympathy. Ukrainians have a long history of sympathizing with anyone who finds himself or herself, as in the case of Yulia Tymoshenko, persecuted by the government, whether fairly or unfairly -- and the latter treatment is nearly always assumed.

(2) Name recognition, which raises the question, Why are there always so few names of decent, competent people Ukrainian voters can recognize at election time?

(3) Popular belief in Mr. Kuchma's string of reform-oriented campaign pledges, not one of which, by my count, was ever carried out. Once in office, Mr. Kuchma handed the economy to a pack of oligarchs that included his family members. Despite his early claim he "didn't become president [of
Ukraine] to become a vassal of Russia," he rapidly became one.

In 1999, President Kuchma selected, with considerable fanfare inspiring nationwide hope and enthusiasm, Viktor Yushchenko as his prime minister. Mr. Yushchenko, in turn, named Yulia Tymoshenko his deputy prime minister for energy.

Months later, Mr. Kuchma fired Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko. The two joined forces to plot their re-entry into Ukrainian politics, first via the parliamentary route and then by plumping Mr. Yushchenko for president.

The Orange Revolution was hatched long before the presidential election last fall. Mr. Yushchenko supporters had concluded well before that he would lose in the official balloting because, they reasoned, the opposition would steal enough votes to appall even Ukrainians. The supporters were right; they were also extremely well-organized in advance, ensuring the Orange Revolution would eventually become a reality.

This was political theater at its best. The fact is, no matter what else the future holds, the Orange Revolution moved Ukraine irrevocably toward the West and Western norms. The next president will be truly elected, not appointed by a Russia- or oligarch-controlled mafia. As one Ukrainian said, "No one kills journalists any more."

In January, newly elected President Yushchenko had to appoint a government, one made up, ideally, of trustworthy people who shared his vision for Ukraine and knew how to run a democracy, people the voting public respected for their honesty and competence. Unfortunately, hardly any people in Ukraine met all these qualifications.

This was an impossible job and Mr. Yushchenko instead installed people who helped him become president, many with little ability or long-term loyalty to Mr. Yushchenko or his vision. That his government came unraveled should neither surprise nor shock.

As nearly everyone has noted recently, it is difficult to create democracies where none existed before and takes a long time. The difficulties and the time required both increase as the number of voters involved rises. Afghanistan and Iraq are cases in point; the population of each is about half Ukraine's.

Political infighting should be no surprise, either. Just ask anyone who has observed how well -- or, more to the point, how badly -- the U.S. departments of State and Defense worked together to support U.S. programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. In developed democracies, political infighting and
grasping for power has been elevated to an art form that would make even the most aggressive Ukrainian mountebank blush.

Despite the warring in Kiev, good things have been happening in Ukraine's hinterlands. For example, tax police treat companies more like clients than enemies. Foreigners can now enter Ukraine without a visa, a big boost to tourism. Criminals protected by the former regime have actually been thrown in prison, even in the eastern city of Donetsk.

Mr. Yushchenko will repair the immediate damage, probably by asking a few trusted and competent friends (such as Oleh Rybachuk, formerly vice prime minister for European Integration and now Mr. Yushchenko's chief of staff) from his first Cabinet to rejoin the government, as well as a few petty criminals who have served Ukraine in the past -- whose main advantages are their name recognition (a calming influence) and their lack of convictions for murder or grand larceny.

After he recovers from this inevitable crisis, Mr. Yushchenko has four years in which to selectively replace members of his Cabinet and recover politically, in time to run for his second term as president in 2009.
Meanwhile, Viktor, better keep an eye on Yulia.
COMMENTARY: By Richard H. Shriver
The Washington Times, Washington, D.C.

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