DONETSK, Ukraine — A year after the Orange Revolution saw millions of Ukrainians take to the frozen streets of Kiev to protest a rigged election, ultimately leading to the nullification of its results and the election of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency, I found myself in a seminar room at Donetsk National University in eastern Ukraine, answering questions students posed in generally excellent English on the future of their country and its place in the Western world.
Donetsk is not Kiev. The Orange Revolution wasn’t located here. Eastern Ukraine, which has a large ethnic Russian population, voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Yushchenko’s opponent, Viktor Yanukovich, who was heavily backed by the Putin government in Moscow and on whose behalf took place the vote fraud that led to the massive protests.
Donetsk is an old mining and industrial town that used to be named after Stalin. In its own way, it’s a tribute to a Ukrainian work ethic that persisted against all economic expectations during the period of Soviet communism. That old communist-era crack about life in the Soviet workers’ paradise, “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us,” was a Moscow joke. In Donetsk, people weren’t entirely pretending, and one of the things that’s striking about Ukraine today is the extent to which industry has been able to build on rather than just toss out its Soviet-era experience. Antonov aircraft are no joke. Neither are Ukrainian rocket launch pads.
Neither is the local Sarmot brewery, one of the many holdings of 39-year-old Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s controversial richest man, one of whose planes picked us up in Kiev. His operations director and our tour guide for the multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art facility, whose software and systems are a product of German engineering at its finest, has been making beer since the Soviet days. He discusses his brewery with enthusiasm rooted in thorough competence through long experience. Except now he wears an Italian suit, and his leather overcoat looks like it came from Ermengildo Zegna or one of the other high-end shops now dominating the storefronts of Donetsk’s main boulevard.
The students want to know whether Ukraine really has a future in the West. The European Union has just taken the step of designating it a “market economy,” an important step on the way to greater economic integration, but an early one. Ukraine’s products find markets not only in Russia but also in the EU, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, but Ukrainian industry isn’t yet ready for full-bore competition with Western firms, not least because of the effects of below-market, Russian-subsidized energy prices.
But that’s hardly a prescription for doom. On the contrary, 10 years from now, if Ukraine manages its transitions and reforms properly, it’s easy to imagine economic success outstripping anything seen so far from the former Soviet bloc.
But is all this talk of integration real, some students want to know, or is it a mask for a political agenda aimed at Russia? Is the United States really prepared to take the Orange Revolution seriously and let the Ukrainian people decide for themselves who will lead them in parliamentary elections in March, or will the United States take sides? This is a polite way of asking whether the United States would tolerate success next year for the Regions party headed by Mr. Yanukovich. And is the real purpose of Ukrainian membership in NATO to draw the country into an anti-Russia alliance? That question is a product of the intense local desire not to be a pawn in somebody else’s game.
That March 2006 election is the most important one on the European calendar next year. Ukrainian politics has been fragmentary since the Orange Revolution. Mr. Yushchenko has been through three prime ministers, including the falling-out with his Orange Revolution partner, the charismatic but voluble Yulia Tymoshenko, who unnerved Western investors with her program of large-scale “reprivatization,” i.e., reconfiscation of assets from previous questionable privatization schemes of the sort that made Mr. Akhmetov his fortune.
The Orange Revolution was as thrilling as international events get, a great moment for people power. Now, though, Ukraine is in the middle of the hard work of cobbling a functional and stable political solution out of diverse elements and interests, no one of which has a monopoly on virtue. In some respects, what’s striking is the progress that has been made so far: Ukraine’s prospects for NATO membership are advancing rapidly, notwithstanding unsettled public opinion currently running in opposition thanks to skepticism of the sort the students in Donetsk were expressing.
But there’s a lot to be done. Western outsiders have a pretty good idea of where they’d like Ukraine to go: in the direction of greater integration with Western institutions, a reflection of shared values and the path to greater prosperity for a nation whose 48 million people have the potential to drive economic growth throughout southeastern Europe. But it’s up to Ukrainians themselves to make that determination through the political process they worked so hard to establish.