28 December 2004
The Ukrainian people have delivered a decisive verdict on who should be their next president. Viktor Yushchenko has defeated his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in the Boxing Day poll. And the size of the turnout - 77 per cent - leaves little room for Mr Yanukovych's campaign to mount a legal challenge to the result. The verdict of the 1,200 independent electoral observers yesterday was also decisive. They ruled that, despite some continued problems with voter lists, this poll constituted a fair election. The widespread intimidation and fraud witnessed in November's poll were, thankfully, absent this time. This alone vindicates the decision taken by the Ukrainian Supreme Court a few weeks ago to call a fresh run-off election.
The fact that Ukrainians came out in such large numbers to vote, as well as cementing their reputation as a democratic nation, has done much for their credentials as an aspirant member of the European Union. But caution is necessary. The Ukrainian economy is still in poor shape. EU membership in the near future could actually do more harm than good. The same could also be true of the prospective Ukrainian membership of Nato. Mr Yushchenko is keen to ally his nation diplomatically with the West, but with Russia on Ukraine's doorstep it might be more appropriate to remain neutral for the time being. Mr Yushchenko must be mindful of the dangers of alienating the Russian-speaking population of the Ukraine, many of whom remain deeply suspicious of his intentions. Ukraine, of course, must decide its own destiny, but any steps towards integration with the West ought to be slow ones.
But this is not the time to dwell on what pitfalls the coming years may bring. It is a time for Ukrainians to take pride in what they have achieved. The protests that began only last month, against a blatantly rigged election, have achieved a substantial victory for democracy. The resolution displayed by Mr Yushchenko's orange-clad supporters who have camped out for weeks on the snowy streets of Kiev deserves great respect. Their patience and spirit have been amply rewarded.