October 27, 2004,
The United States isn’t the only country holding a presidential election in the next few days. There is also an important vote coming up in the Ukraine on October 31, the results of which could be revolutionary.
Like many of the former republics of the old Soviet Union, the Ukraine has struggled, politically and economically. It has no history of either democracy or self-government, having been a vassal of Russia long before the communist takeover. And because of communism, the Ukraine’s economy never developed naturally so as to exploit those industries and businesses most appropriate for its location and resources. Under central planning, production was guided by political whim, with the result that much of the industry located in the Ukraine at independence was inherently unviable in a free market.
The Ukraine also suffers in other ways from the communist legacy. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is still a mess and the nation has never fully recovered from the awful famine inflicted upon it by Josef Stalin in the 1930s (the famine is estimated to have killed as many as10 million people).
However, other former Soviet republics and even Russia itself have had to deal with the consequences of communism, with most having done a better job than the Ukraine. This is primarily due to the abysmal leadership of Leonid Kuchma. Fortunately, he is not running for reelection. But he is backing someone Viktor Yanukovych who looks like his clone.
Thankfully, there is an alternative. Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister and head of the central bank, is leading a reform bloc that has a good chance of winning. As it happens, I know Yushchenko’s wife, Katherine Chumachenko, an American of Ukrainian descent. She and I met in the late 1980s when she was working in the human rights bureau at the State Department. Later, we worked together at the White House, where she was in the Office of Public Liaison, and the Treasury Department, where she was in the executive secretary’s office.
Anyone who met Kathy quickly discovered that the liberation of the Ukraine from communist tyranny was her primary mission in life, to the exclusion of almost everything else. So it was no surprise to me when she moved to Kiev soon after it broke free of Moscow’s control in 1991. I helped get her a position there with KPMG, an American consulting company, where she trained Ukrainians in Western methods of banking, accounting, and other fundamentals of a market economy.
Kathy married Viktor five years ago, while he was still running the central bank. In that position, he was one of the few Ukrainians who was trusted by foreign investors. He has a reputation for honesty as well as competence the former perhaps more important than the latter, given the widespread corruption in the Ukraine. (A new report from Transparency International ranks the Ukraine as one of the most corrupt nations on Earth.)
In December 1999, Yushchenko was named prime minister. By all accounts, he did an excellent job, helping to implement economic and political reforms. This did not endear him to President Kuchma or the oligarchs who have robbed the country blind, so he was sacked in April 2001. Since then, he has been a member of the Ukraine’s parliament, where he has continued to press for reform.
The Ukraine should naturally be aligned with Poland and other Easter European countries that have implemented reforms and prospered in the post-communist era, becoming strong allies of the United States in the war against terror. Only its own rotten leadership has held it back. If Yushchenko wins, its promise will be much closer to becoming a reality. Regretfully, if he loses, it could fall even further behind.
The vote on Sunday is unlikely to produce a winner. More than likely, Yushchenko and Yanukovych will meet again in a runoff three weeks later. That vote will determine the Ukraine’s future for many years to come.