Globe and Mail, Canada
April 27 2004
Putting faith in the domino theory
Last year, Georgia toppled its leader; now Ukraine hopes to do the
same, MARK MacKINNON says
By MARK MacKINNON
KIEV — When Yulia Tymoshenko watched on television as Georgians rid
themselves of their despised president last fall, one thought buzzed
through her mind: Why couldn’t the same thing happen in Ukraine?
She may get her answer this fall, when Ukrainians vote for a new
president. Opinion polls suggest opposition candidate Viktor
Yushchenko would easily win a fair vote. But most analysts believe
Ukraine’s ruling clique, President Leonid Kuchma and his allies,
won’t let that happen.
Anger over a rigged election drove tens of thousands of Georgians
into the streets last November, in weeks of mass demonstrations that
finally forced Eduard Shevardnadze to give up power in what was
dubbed the Rose Revolution (after an opposition politician’s single
red rose, carried as a symbolic substitute for a gun).
Georgia’s political earthquake is still reverberating across the
former Soviet Union, and the strongest tremors are felt in Ukraine.
Mr. Kuchma, who is accused of running a government fraught with
corruption and of personal involvement in the killing of an
opposition journalist, is deeply disliked and will not be running for
a third term.
However, he has thrown the weight of his administration behind Prime
Minister Viktor Yanukovich’s bid.
Ms. Tymoshenko, 43, an influential opposition politician and one of
Mr. Kuchma’s harshest critics, is among those who expect Ukraine’s
ruling authorities to fight dirty during this fall’s election
If the vote is seen to be rigged, she said, the opposition will have
no choice but to take to the streets and try for their own Rose
“If the authorities try to falsify the presidential election . . . I
would hope to see the Georgian example repeated here in Ukraine,” the
charismatic former deputy prime minister said in an interview.
“I personally will be calling people to go into the streets.”
Ms. Tymoshenko enjoys the parallels between herself and Mr.
Yushchenko, and the young politicians who led Georgia’s revolt:
Mikhail Saakashvili (who carried the red rose) and Nino Burdzhanadze,
now respectively that country’s President and parliamentary Speaker.
Like the two Georgians, Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Yushchenko have put
aside their ideological differences to form a united front for the
Political tension has long been building in Ukraine, and many
observers believe that a recent mayoral election in the western city
of Mukachevo was a trial run for the presidential showdown.
With the opposition set to coast to victory in an area considered a
stronghold of Mr. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine movement, police sealed
off the electoral commission offices in Mukachevo and prevented
journalists and observers from watching as votes were tallied.
After officials announced that a pro-Kuchma candidate was the winner,
thugs in leather jackets are reported to have beaten several
observers and Our Ukraine officials who tried to enter the election
Some see the events in Mukachevo as a signal that Ukraine will be
less tolerant of dissent than was Mr. Shevardnadze, who let
demonstrators occupy the main street of Tbilisi for weeks while
independent television stations called for his resignation.
There is little independent news media in Ukraine; most TV stations
and newspapers are under government control.
“The [message] of Mukachevo is to threaten the public, to let them
know that [the authorities] could use not only administrative
resources, but could use physical force,” said Yevgeny Bistretsky,
director of the Kiev-based International Renaissance Foundation, an
affiliate of billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Institute.
Mr. Soros is accused in many quarters of providing financial support
to the Georgian revolt. When he visited Ukraine last month, he was
attacked in the state media and pelted with eggs and a
mayonnaise-filled condom by Kuchma supporters.
It is clear that while opposition parties across the former Soviet
Union, a region dominated by authoritarian regimes, have pounced on
the Georgian example as proof that change is possible, governments
too have learned from it.
In Armenia, the opposition has been rallying thousands into the
streets for weeks, calling for a vote on President Robert Kocharian’s
rule. Police recently broke up a crowd near Mr. Kocharian’s residence
using water cannons, batons and stun grenades.
“The Armenian opposition, encouraged by the Georgian ‘velvet
revolution,’ has clearly decided that the situation in the country
will enable them to achieve the same outcome,” Mr. Kocharian told
Russian state television recently.
“But the situation cannot be compared.”
Even in outright dictatorships such as Belarus and Uzbekistan,
Georgia’s example has shaken up the political status quo and
invigorated the opposition.
Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the beleaguered opposition to hard-line
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, says that his country’s
people privately cheered the Georgian revolt but can only dream of
similar events because they face a much more repressive regime.
“People will sit in their flats tonight and criticize Lukashenko . .
. but so far we have not been able to turn that into opposition on
the streets,” Mr. Lebedko said in his Minsk office, his desk decked
out with a small Georgian flag.
“But I’m an optimist. I have to be.”
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress