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Uncertainty prevails at Yanukovych's inauguration

Will his term see democratic ideals tossed aside, or will he surprise detractors, who call him "Moscow-leaning"?

Ukraine's President-elect Viktor Yanukovich holds up the presidential seal during his inauguration ceremony at the parliament hall in Kiev, Feb. 25, 2010. Yanukovich was sworn in as president on Thursday saying Ukraine was facing "colossal debts," poverty, corruption and economic collapse. (Anastasiya Sirotkina/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine — The election of Viktor Yushchenko as Ukrainian president five years ago, thanks to the immense outpouring of popular outrage that came to be known as Orange Revolution, sent convulsions throughout the former Soviet region.

The sight of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians — a sea of orange hats, scarves, blankets and jackets on Kiev’s central Independence Square and Khreshatik Street — was an inspiration to similar popular protest movements, and at the same time an anathema to the government they strove to topple.

The Ukrainians gathered for a variety of reasons, economic as well as political, but their central goal was clear: to rid their country of its Soviet habits and create a more open and democratic society, free of corruption and the regularly falsified elections that characterized then-President Leonid Kuchma’s government.

Now however, with the inauguration of Viktor Yanukovych today, many inside and outside Ukraine believe they are witnessing a restoration of the ancient regime. Yanukovych has risen from the ashes: the villain of the Orange Revolution, whose stiff, inarticulate public image came to represent all that was wrong with the Kuchma machine, just as Yushchenko’s disfigured face from a mysterious poisoning symbolized at that time the hope of the future.

The future turned out a little differently, of course. Yushchenko leaves office with perhaps one of the lowest electoral showings for a president in the modern era, just over 5 percent. It’s difficult to pinpoint what angered voters the most — his endless wrangling with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, his own seeming weakness, the corruption that surrounded him or the economic malaise which he did not create but nevertheless seemed absolutely incapacitated to overcome.

But his erstwhile opponent has undergone a change in perception too. Yanukovych initially won the election in 2004 apparently through colossal fraud — and the overt backing of the Kremlin. This time he triumphed in a contest that international observers called an “impressive display of democratic elections.” Moscow officials too kept to the sidelines, perhaps conscious of how their involvement in the last race blew up in their faces.

This time too the aftershocks from the Ukrainian vote will be felt throughout the Soviet sphere. The question is, which lesson will take hold? The Triumph of Democracy — or the Empire Strikes Back?

A great deal of course depends on the path Yanukovych actually takes. He could staff his government with Soviet-style apparatchiks and shady personalities from his base in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. He could also decide, now that he is finally in power, that free and fair elections are an unnecessary nuisance after all. He could reveal himself to be instead of a “Moscow-leaning” or “Moscow-friendly” politician (as the Western press now characterizes him), to be in fact the Kremlin’s strongest ally.