By Leonardo Benardo and Laura Silber at Globeandmail.com
Viktor Yushchenko, the President of Ukraine, is now faced with the monumental task of putting his country back on course. The recent sacking of Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and her government is just the latest in a string of events that have undermined the hopes of the Orange Revolution. Left unfilled are last December's promises to fight corruption, pull Ukraine into Europe and transform the country into a place where democracy flourishes.
In the nine months since euphoric crowds emblazoned in orange massed to demand respect for their votes, the people of Ukraine have seen little progress on social and political reform.
Instead, mired in political squabbles and cronyism, Ukraine's unity has been torn asunder. Timoshenko, a charismatic populist, was at loggerheads with. Yushchenko's proxies, notably Petro Poroshenko, the former head of the National Security and Defence Council, over a range of issues, including re-privatization -- the state's re-auctioning of enterprises whose sales went forward under questionable conditions. Politics was less about achieving reform for the benefit of Ukraine and more about the settling of scores.
Also at issue were conflicting approaches over how to deal with Ukraine's past. Yushchenko wanted to push forward with integration into Europe; Timoshenko believed that the process would falter unless Ukraine first redressed inequities inherited from the previous regime.
But the revolution has not yet been betrayed. With a new government in place, Yushchenko has another opportunity to make good on his promises. While there is no panacea to cure Ukraine's ills, with careful attention to select issues, Yushchenko and his government can make headway on a substantive reform agenda before crucial parliamentary elections (set for next March).
To succeed, Yushchenko must advance a clear set of policy goals that can be accomplished before the poll. He should focus work in areas that are barometers for a country's commitment to democracy: the establishment of public broadcasting; adopting freedom-of-information legislation; securing access to justice; and fighting corruption.
If he facilitates the creation of a model public broadcasting channel (a state channel with an independent board determining its content), Yushchenko can stave off the corrupting influence of political and financial bosses intent on imposing their own agendas. Better yet, transforming the state channel, a grim legacy from the Soviet era, would spotlight the government's pledge to champion non-partisan information.
With respect to openness and transparency, the passage of a law on freedom of information would be a huge step forward. It would end the state's notorious use of secret decrees, a practice regrettably continued after the revolution. Public trust in government is crucial if Ukraine's reforms are to take effect.
Honouring the previous government's pledge to work toward establishing a system of public legal defence is also vital. As in most former Soviet countries, the prosecutor in Ukraine wields disproportionate influence. Many people, without effective defence representation, go to jail.
As for corruption, if the government were to target a specific sector and tackle it head on, it would demonstrate a commitment to confronting the scourge permeating Ukrainian life. In higher education, for example, thousands of university applicants manage to bypass uniform testing, instead gaining admission through bribes or personal connections.
This problem was the focus of a recent pilot project, supported by Kiev's International Renaissance Foundation (part of the Soros Foundation Network, founded by George Soros to help build democracies). The project established an independent body to develop and oversee standardized testing.
Another clear signal that the Orange Revolution's core values have not been jettisoned would be to set the stage for a fair and legitimate electoral season. To safeguard the integrity of the electoral process, Yushchenko should welcome observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe; he should make sure that exit polls are conducted by the best international experts; and he should stand by the Constitutional Court's decision to create a stronger parliamentary system.
In last December's presidential elections, along with others, the International Renaissance Foundation was involved in exit polling -- which in turn helped provide independent evidence of the election results and exposed a huge discrepancy between the official and independent returns. The polls, along with voter education and support for human rights, are non-partisan and central to the Soros Foundation Network's mission to build an open society.
Buoyed by the success of their winter revolution, many expected that Europe to swiftly embrace Ukraine. But Europe, distracted by its own problems, was cautious, and sought to ascertain whether Ukraine could meet fundamental prerequisites, notably those rules that define membership in the European Union. Carrying out reforms on corruption, public broadcasting, freedom of information and access to justice would be a tangible sign that Ukraine had moved from rhetoric to action. The pace of European expansion likely will be halting, but Yushchenko must put Ukraine on a trajectory that conforms to European norms and values.
The Orange Revolution, a victory for the democratic process, was a beacon not only for the countries of the former Soviet Union (Kyrgyzstan, for example) but around the world. To get it back on track is crucial for Ukraine -- and beyond.
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