Oranges can often be bitter, and the mass street protests now going on in Ukraine may not be quite as sweet as their supporters claim.
For one thing the demonstrators do not reflect nationwide sentiments. Ukraine is riven by deep historical, religious and linguistic divisions. The crowds in the street include a large contingent from western Ukraine, which has never felt comfortable with rule from Kiev, let alone from people associated with eastern Ukraine, the home-base of Viktor Yanukovich, the disputed president-elect.
Their traditions are not always pleasant. Some protesters have been chanting nationalistic and secessionist songs from the anti-semitic years of the second world war.
Nor are we watching a struggle between freedom and authoritarianism as is romantically alleged. Viktor Yushchenko, who claims to have won Sunday’s election, served as prime minister under the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, and some of his backers are also linked to the brutal industrial clans who manipulated Ukraine’s post-Soviet privatisation.
On some issues Yushchenko may be a better potential president than Yanukovich, but to suggest he would provide a sea-change in Ukrainian politics and economic management is naive. Nor is there much evidence to imagine that, were he the incumbent president facing a severe challenge, he would not have tried to falsify the poll.
Countless elections in the post-Soviet space have been manipulated to a degree which probably reversed the result, usually by unfair use of state television, and sometimes by direct ballot rigging. Boris Yeltsin’s constitutional referendum in Russia in 1993 and his re-election in 1996 were early cases. Azerbaijan’s presidential vote last year was also highly suspicious.
Yet after none of those polls did the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the main international observer body, or the US and other western governments, make the furious noise they are producing today. The decision to protest appears to depend mainly on realpolitik and whether the challengers or the incumbent are considered more “pro-western” or “pro-market”.
In Ukraine, Yushchenko got the western nod, and floods of money poured in to groups which support him, ranging from the youth organisation, Pora, to various opposition websites. More provocatively, the US and other western embassies paid for exit polls, prompting Russia to do likewise, though apparently to a lesser extent.
The US’s own election this month showed how wrong exit polls can be. But they provide a powerful mobilising effect, making it easier to persuade people to mount civil disobedience or seize public buildings on the grounds the election must have been stolen if the official results diverge.
Intervening in foreign elections, under the guise of an impartial interest in helping civil society, has become the run-up to the postmodern coup d’etat, the CIA-sponsored third world uprising of cold war days adapted to post-Soviet conditions. Instruments of democracy are used selectively to topple unpopular dictators, once a successor candidate or regime has been groomed.
In Ukraine’s case this is playing with fire. Not only is the country geographically and culturally divided – a recipe for partition or even civil war – it is also an important neighbour to Russia. Putin has been clumsy, but to accuse Russia of imperialism because it shows close interest in adjoining states and the Russian-speaking minorities who live there is a wild exaggeration.
Ukraine has been turned into a geostrategic matter not by Moscow but by the US, which refuses to abandon its cold war policy of encircling Russia and seeking to pull every former Soviet republic to its side. The EU should have none of this. Many Ukrainians certainly want a more democratic system. Putin is not inherently against this, however authoritarian he is in his own country. What concerns him is instability, the threat of anti-Russian regimes on his borders, and American mischief.
The EU should therefore press for a compromise in Kiev, which might include power-sharing. More importantly, it should give Ukraine the option of future membership rather than the feeble “action plan” of cooperation currently on offer. This would set Ukraine on a surer path to irreversible reform than anything that either Yushchenko or Yanukovich may promise.
Sceptics wonder where the EU’s enlargement will end, but Ukraine is undoubtedly a European nation in a way that the states of the Caucasus, of central Asia and of north Africa are not.
The EU must also make a public statement that it sees no value in Nato membership for Ukraine, and those EU members who belong to Nato will not support it. At a stroke this would calm Russia’s legitimate fears and send a signal to Washington not to go on inflaming a purely European issue.