Ukrainians have won the right to choose their own destiny

By Viktor Yushchenko

Financial Times

Published: December 28 2004

In Ukraine's repeat presidential election run-off on Sunday, voters gave the vibrant opposition movement that I lead a mandate to change the way our country is governed.

Official poll counts show that a majority voted for change. Three exit polls point to even greater margins between my opponent and me. The difference suggests that vote-tampering occurred but not enough to reverse a clear victory.

For the third time in as many months, Ukrainians cast ballots unwaveringly for a future committed to freedom, democracy and the rule of law. When the incumbent regime interfered by censoring the mass media and falsifying November's election results, millions of voters took to the streets to defend the most fundamental of all civil rights - the right to choose one's own destiny.

In doing so, they forced corrupt authorities that were planning to resort to force to stand down. More important, in an elegant display of democracy, they unleashed a public cleansing of society's civic institutions. The atmosphere of fear and intimidation instilled by the government and tolerated by the public for a decade was lifted.

There is no doubt that Ukrainians want change. They want an end to government corruption. They want decent jobs at honest wages. And they want a president whom they trust to make the changes needed in government and society. When the outgoing government refused to acknowledge the volatile public mood, it became clear that citizens, businesses, elected officials and the courts - the institutions of civil society - had to take matters into their own hands. And they did.

Since November 21, when the first, corrupted, run-off took place, democracy has reaffirmed itself daily in demonstrations in Kiev and in city centres throughout the country. A new Ukraine has emerged from this "Orange Revolution", one of which people at home and abroad have high expectations. I will move quickly to close the gap left by the outgoing government by implementing popular measures that will improve lives and strengthen social institutions.

During the past month, four fundamental changes have taken place in Ukraine. First, by saying "no" to election fraud and autocracy, the country put a definitive end to its post-Soviet period. By rejecting managed democracy, Ukraine has affirmed itself as a free European country that shares the political values of modern democratic states. Its well-informed citizenry, empowered with a right to choose, will make the correct choice in guiding elected officials. This will be the cornerstone of my public policy agenda.

Second, Ukraine's nascent civil society is more mature than many had earlier believed. During the past few weeks, it has bridged the divide between government lawlessness and civic disenchantment by asserting itself without violence.

In spite of officials overstepping their authority, society rose up in defence of those civil servants and law enforcement officials who carried out their duties honestly. It ridiculed publicly those who did not. Investigations into government corruption will certainly go forward. This will be done objectively within the spirit and letter of the law. Society has spoken against political revenge by insisting that elected officials pursue national reconciliation and unity, which I intend to do.

Third, Ukraine's state institutions, emboldened by street protests, were quick to reassert their political authority against the executive's efforts to steal the election. The Supreme Court stood up against corruption by ruling objectively on election fraud and calling for a repeat run-off election.

In Ukraine's parliament, the pro-presidential bloc disintegrated. MPs could no longer tolerate being held hostage by a ruler who sought to use the courts and law enforcement agencies to sustain an authoritarian regime. They rose to amend their country's constitution and laws to ensure that abuse of state power and voting manipulations were minimised.

Some of Ukraine's media elite recognised that censorship, propaganda and political intolerance, if left unchecked by objective journalism, could tear apart Ukraine's diverse communities. The result was more balanced coverage of the election that allowed society to recognise its heroes and to push aside those who threatened Ukraine's national integrity with separatism.

Finally, through voluntary corporate contributions that funded weeks of civil strikes, businesses and entrepreneurs demonstrated their readiness to work with government. Business has shown that it too is part of the community and is willing to pay reasonable taxes to a transparent government that provides basic social services.

With election politicking over, I shall endeavour to reach out to all sections of society and establish order in Ukraine's international economic affairs. Our country's long-term commitments will be honoured and I shall strive to maintain good relations with neighbouring states.

I would like to assure our Russian and European partners that the stable and dependable transportation of energy is guaranteed. Free trade initiatives with our eastern and western partners will move forward, including those that confirm Ukraine's status as a market economy and its readiness for World Trade Organisation membership. We shall soon announce our plans for ramping up Ukraine's relations with the European Union.

The democratic transformation that began in Europe 15 years ago has extended eastward to Ukraine. We are poised to make our contribution to a unified and stable Europe.

The writer, a former prime minister, is Ukraine's president-elect