Democratic ardor has been abundant in Ukraine in recent years. The 2004 "Orange Revolution" brought tens of thousands into the streets to overturn a corrupt old guard, which had held sway since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It struck fear into the hearts of autocrats elsewhere, the legend goes, and inspired similar efforts of varying success in Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, and Belarus, to name a few examples. Yet Sunday's parliamentary election is not likely to please the ardent. Voting took place Sunday in a three-way race between the party of reformist President Viktor Yushchenko, an estranged faction led by a former "Orange" comrade, and the old guard itself—which is leading in early vote counts (BBC).
What happened? A wide range of Ukraine experts and local analysts say the "Orange Revolution" basically imploded (Guardian). Just a few short months after triumphantly leading street protests that forced a recount of the fixed 2004 vote, "the heroes of the revolution, current President Viktor Yuschenko and former prime minister Julia Timoshenko, fell out with one another" (Radio Netherlands).
The split in the "reform" movement and a sluggish economy revived support for Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Moscow former president accused of rigging the last vote. Preliminary returns indicate his Party of Regions likely won't be able to win enough seats in the country's 450-seat parliament to form a majority, making a coalition between some combination of the three main parties necessary. Attention is focusing on whether Yushchenko and Timoshenko are able to reunite their Orange coalition again (RFE/RL). As cfr.org's Lionel Beehner writes from Kiev in this Background Q&A, the vote is significant because it will indicate whether Ukrainians prefer to continue the reforms set in motion by Yushchenko's team or return Ukraine to a pro-Russian alignment.
In fact, the "revolution" had begun to fray badly within months of its success in toppling Yanukovich (Foreign Affairs). For all its promise as a source of inspiration, along with Georgia's earlier "Rose revolution," it did nothing to change some basic facts of life for former Soviet republics: inherited corruption, immature democratic institutions, structural dependency on Moscow, and deep-seated internal ethnic and cultural challenges. The perils of angering Russia revealed themselves to the leaders of both these republics as Moscow manipulated natural gas supplies, launched diplomatic efforts to undermine the new leadership in Kiev and Tbilisi, and encouraged agitation among ethnic Russian elements (Prime News) inside both countries. Indeed, it was a flurry of corruption accusations between the leaders of the "Orange" faction that led to the split in the movement (Moscow Times).
The Christian Science Monitor notes that Ukraine, at least, has embraced democracy—a stark contrast to neighboring Belarus. The vote not only chooses Ukraine's next leadership, but also sets in motion constitutional reforms that convert the country from a presidential to a parliamentary republic (RFE/RL). Yet the reform leadership's failure to hold power underscores that democracy is no magic bullet in Europe, the Middle East, or Central Asia. As Thomas Carothers points out in Foreign Affairs this month, autocrats have been exceedingly successful in pushing back democracy's tide, no matter what color it affects.