Every revolution sparks a counterrevolution. The French Revolution in 1789 was followed by Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy. Following the Russian Revolution, the czar’s forces regrouped and fought a bloody civil war.
Sunday’s election of Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency of Ukraine does not represent the counterrevolution—or at least not yet. For those who don’t remember, Yanukovych was the bad guy of the 2004 Orange Revolution. An ex-thug and ex-Communist with a criminal record, he ran for president that year with the overt backing of the Russian government and tried to steal the election. After weeks of street protests, he backed down and eventually allowed the real winner, Viktor Yushchenko, to come to power. It was post-Soviet Ukraine’s first truly democratic election.
Fast-forward to 2010, and many things look different: Yushchenko was a bitter disappointment to his countrymen. The recession hit Ukraine hard; many difficult decisions were not made. The Ukrainian government still has not gotten around to privatizing land or removing Soviet-era subsidies from the budget. Tensions between the western and eastern halves of the country have not decreased. As things got tougher, politicians began squabbling among themselves, making reform impossible; the value of the currency has halved.
The only thing that has remained consistent over the past four years is the democratic process itself. Far and away the most striking thing about this Ukrainian presidential election is that we genuinely did not know who would win it. By contrast, the only mystery about Russian elections is the question of why they bother to hold them, since the winner is known long in advance. Six years after the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian political culture remains open, unpredictable, and interesting—so much so that formerly prominent Russian journalists have now moved to Kiev to ply their trade. “The difference between Russian politics and Ukrainian politics,” one of them told the New York Times, “is the difference between a cemetery and a madhouse.”
And who has been the biggest beneficiary of this madhouse? Yanukovych, the original bad guy: Two parliamentary elections and one presidential election have been held since the Orange Revolution, and he has won them all. The Ukrainians are not an illogical people: The only real advantage of democracy is that it enables people to throw out leaders they don’t like. When the various “orange” coalitions failed to deliver the expected reforms, the Ukrainians took full advantage of their voting power to throw them out. Anyone else would do the same.
The test now, of course, is whether Yanukovych will respect those who elected him and ensure that democratic elections continue to be held into the future. His success will be easy to measure: If he is evicted from office in due course, as all politicians eventually are, then he has respected the spirit of the Orange Revolution. If he tries to stay on past his term by falsifying votes, intimidating the opposition, and killing journalists, then we will know that the counterrevolution has come to power. And it is by these terms that we should judge him. Whether he tries to join NATO (he will not) or befriend the European Union (he might well) matters less to Ukraine’s political future than the simple question of whether Ukrainians will be allowed to replace him if they disapprove of his choices.
That does not mean his choices are irrelevant: Ukrainians, like everyone else under the sun, will select their future leaders based on their perceptions of how well their country is run. “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” is not a uniquely American slogan. In the coming months, the Ukrainian government will be (and should be) far more concerned with what one regional analyst calls “geo-economics,” as opposed to geopolitics. The Ukrainians need to expand their relationship with the International Monetary Fund; they need to negotiate stable and reasonable gas agreements with their Russian neighbors to the east; they need to conclude visa and trade agreements with their European neighbors to the west. They are in need of practical and literate politicians, not ideologues. For their sake, we must hope that Yanukovych is the former, not the latter.
The big questions—will Ukraine ultimately be “Western” or “Eastern”; will its political culture come to resemble Europe’s or Russia’s; will Ukraine eventually join European and transatlantic institutions—have not disappeared with the election of an “Eastern” president. But they have been put on hold, at least for the moment.