By David Marples
In what was termed the Orange Revolution of late 2004, protests in the streets of Kyiv forced a rerun of the second round of the presidential election in Ukraine, resulting in the victory of Viktor Yushchenko over his rival Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by former president Leonid Kuchma and Russian president Vladimir Putin. Both at the time and subsequently, the outcome was perceived as a victory for pro-Western forces in Ukraine over a ruling group that hitherto was oriented toward Russia.
In similar fashion, the parliamentary elections of 2006 also saw a narrow victory for the Orange forces (which later split catastrophically) over the Regions Party led by Viktor Yanukovych. However, two opinion polls that have been conducted in recent weeks suggest that Ukrainian residents are hesitant about deepening ties with the West and opposed especially to NATO, and a substantial number would rather have some form of union with neighbors Russia and Belarus than join the EU.
On 24 July, Interfax Ukraine cited the results of the most recent survey conducted by the Yaremenko Ukrainian Institute of Social Research and the “Social Monitoring” Center between 10 and 18 July. It is based on 2,014 respondents over the age of 18, residing in 132 cities and villages in all regions of Ukraine, and has a margin of error of 1.34-2.24%.
Less than 20% of respondents are in support of Ukraine joining NATO, with 57% opposed, a figure that would seem to preclude any immediate prospects of a referendum on whether to join the military body. About 25% are in favor of joining the EU, whereas 43.4% wish to join a union with Russia and Belarus, and 27% think it better to pursue equal relations with both the EU and Russia. Thus over 70% of those surveyed support some form of close relationship with Russia.
On the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, the attitude is generally benign: 33.5% feel that the existing status of that language should remain as it is currently; 26.4% believe that it should be raised to the status of a state language; 24.7% consider that Russian should be elevated to the second state language in areas where a majority is in favor of this step; and only 11.7% think that Russian should be removed from official communications throughout Ukraine. Thus over 51% support some strengthening of the status of the Russian language in Ukraine.
These results may be compared to those of another poll carried out between 19 June and 2 July by the Ukrainian Sociology Service and Democratic Initiatives Foundation, with 2,000 respondents from all regions and an error margin of under 2.2% and cited by the Kyiv Post. This poll reveals that had the parliamentary elections–scheduled for late September 2007–been held in early July, the East Ukrainian-based Regions Party led by Yanukovych would have won 44% of the vote and gained about 206 seats in the legislature of 450 members. Regions could then have formed a working partnership with the Communist Party and established a majority government. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc would have formed the opposition.
This same poll also revealed the declining faith of residents of Ukraine in democracy (only 44% feel that it is the best state system), whereas a substantial group–one fifth of respondents–believes that Ukraine would be better off with an authoritarian system. On the question of whether order, democracy, freedom, or liberalism was needed, “order” was the preferred commodity, with 93% in support whereas less than 25% opted for liberalism.
The results of these two polls are both disturbing and revealing. On the one hand, they suggest that the progress of Ukraine toward a Western-style and Western-leaning democracy has been consistently exaggerated by some Western sources. On the other hand, they offer a more accurate account of the way Ukrainians really think. A large plurality or even a small majority of residents of Ukraine prefer closer ties with Russia and have some facility in the Russian language. A similarly substantial portion of the population is skeptical about Western influence, democratic structures, and the way the country has been run since the success of the Orange Revolution.
In truth, the Orange Revolution was not about a pro-Western or pro-Russian orientation at all (Putin’s ill-advised interventions notwithstanding). It was about the way the country had been run for the previous decade, with a spate of political murders, corruption, and muzzling of the media by the Kuchma government.
Ukrainians are not pro-Western today partly because the example set by Western democracies in recent times has hardly provided a model to emulate: beginning with NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 and culminating with the invasion of Iraq.
And Ukrainians are for the most part pro-Russian because they see Russia as a strong counterforce to the United States and a nation with which they have more in common than with either the new democracies of Eastern Europe or the long-established democracies that no longer seem capable of providing fitting examples to follow.