By ADRIAN KARATNYCKY
December 28, 2004 -- KIEV, UKRAINE
VIKTOR Yushchenko — former banker, survi vor of assassination at tempts and leader of a nonviolent civic movement — has been elected president of Ukraine.
It will take a few days before the results are official, but his lead (2.5 million votes with all districts reporting) is insurmountable. So early next year, he will take the reins of power in what has been one of the world's most corrupt governments and political systems.
Yushchenko's victory is also a personal setback to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backed Yushchenko's authoritarian opponent Viktor Yanukovich, in hopes of keeping fully-fledged democracy from "infecting" neighboring Ukraine and so threatening Russia's authoritarian order.
As a deeply religious man and a Europe-oriented reformer of the moderate center-right with a reputation for personal integrity, President-to-be Yushchenko represents a triple threat to much of Ukraine's former political establishment.
* As a bearer of ethical values, he challenges the amorality of the country's greedy business-government nexus.
* As a man who can't be bought, he is ready to use anti-monopoly statutes to restore to his country billions of dollars lost in corrupt and crony privatization schemes.
* As a modern European politician, he is ready to make the strong case for Ukraine's long-term integration into the European community.
There are, however, many threats to this ambitious agenda. First, his broad, diverse coalition will be hard to keep united over the long haul.
Then there is an opposition that is still dominated by very wealthy oligarchs and the political parties they control. Some of them are now willing to find common ground with Yushchenko and restore their ill-gotten gains to the state coffers.
Other political and business leaders are enmeshed in criminal violence, including assassinations and assassinations attempts. It was they who colluded in the massive electoral fraud that sparked mass protests in late November that forced a re-vote and led to Yushchenko's triumph.
Ukraine's outgoing President Leonid Kuchma is directly responsible for the sad state of affairs. Yes, the economy has grown at a very rapid rate — but most Ukrainian voters see that as the result of reforms introduced by Yushchenko in his 20 months as prime minister. Kuchma himself viewed the government as a personal moneymaking scheme — doling out privileges to political supporters, family and friends.
In the end, this graft, corruption and amorality led to his alleged involvement in the disappearance of murdered journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. It also led Kuchma to create a semi-authoritarian state most of whose media were formerly under the control of the authorities and their "theme directives."
Now all this will stop. Still, as Ukraine's new president, Yushchenko will face threats to his political agenda as well as his personal security. Those challenges include agents of the Russian security services, which are known to operate widely in Ukraine.
There are also signs that some Russian business interests will seek to influence Ukraine's evolution by trying to corrupt the new reformist political elite President Yushchenko will bring to government office. (This already happened in Lithuania, whose President Rolandas Paskas was impeached after taking bribes from Russian business interests.)
In the coming months, Yushchenko's agenda of economic reform, anti-corruption, media pluralism and positioning for integration into the European Union will only get significant momentum if he has strong support in the democratic community of nations.
This means increased U.S. aid and investment, and the deepening of ties with European governments — whose citizens are swept up in a wave of enthusiasm for Ukraine's nonviolent civic revolution.
But Yushchenko must also work to stabilize relations with Russia. This latter will be his first urgent foreign policy objective. The first visit Yushchenko makes will be to Moscow — to iron out a working relationship with Putin. Next will follow visits to Warssaw and the European Union in Brussels. Only then will there be a likely state visit to America.
Yushchenko, 50, has a young, capable team fully able to reform his country.
Above all, he has the support of Ukraine's emerging civil society, whose courageous nonviolent actions helped put an end to Ukraine's nightmare of semi-authoritarian corrupt rule, and whose activists have been celebrating their victory since polls closed Sunday night.
If he succeeds, Yushchenko will be honored in the same breath as Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel; while Kuchma will be remembered as a Ukrainian-minted version of former Philippine tyrant Ferdinand Marcos or Peru's disgraced ex-strong man Alberto Fujimori.
Adrian Karatnycky, counselor and senior scholar at Freedom House, is in Kiev, where he observed Sunday's historic elections.