Fulbright scholar updates Chicago from Kiev

By Ryan Uricks

Chicago alumna and Fulbright scholar Megan Buskey, currently in Kiev, watched as the “Orange Revolution” swept through Ukraine this past November. The election between pro-western Victor Yushchenko and Russian-backed Victor Yanukovych was the most pivotal in the country’s history.

As Yanukovych was declared the winner in the first disputed election, Yushchenko’s supporters took to the streets of Kiev. “There is orange everywhere,” Buskey said. “Stores were sold out of orange ribbon and plastic bags, and they have ended up tied around poles, around statues, around people’s arms and as headbands.”

Demonstrations continued, Buskey reported, with protesters beginning to flock to Independence Square in Kiev. “People throughout the city are breaking into loud, almost aggressive chants of Yushchenko, Yushchenko, Yushchenko, even in the middle of McDonalds,” she said.

Since then, Yushchenko has won the second election by a comfortable margin and the former government has stepped down in preparation for the ascension of Yushchenko to the presidency.

Buskey said she thought the revolution could be explained by a combination of factors, including “a significant amount of exasperation with the Soviet ruling elite, an increased awareness of the opportunities available in Western countries, and an honorable and capable figurehead for the opposition—in Victor Yushchenko—who has the power to articulate to Ukrainians a clear alternative to the current—now former—regime.”

Charles Lipson, professor of political science at the University, agreed that this was an important moment in world history. “The Ukrainian election is a landmark event, not only because of Yushchenko’s victory, but also because a peaceful popular protest forced a new ballot,” he said. “It is another victory for peaceful protest in the service of democracy.”

Rumors are circulating that the United States helped instigate the revolution, Buskey said. “America has indeed given money to civil and democratic society-building initiatives. But to lay this all on the doorstep of USAID is a mistake,” she said.

Similarly, Lipson said he thought both the United States and the European Union benefited from the initiatives, and he sees Yushchenko’s victory as “a refreshing change from their disagreements over Iraq and Middle East policy.” He added that the election’s results put Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin, in a “bind” for supporting the more Russian-friendly Yanukovych.

“Putin now faces a choice, and my prediction is that he’ll seek accommodation with Ukraine,” he said.

What lies ahead for Yushchenko, Lipson warned, is the struggle to find a balance in dealing with both the West and Russia—while finding a way to improve the Ukrainan people’s quality of life. Lipson added that Yushchenko must also deal with the brutish Russian mafia, which has significant influence over Ukrainian politics. “They are powerful and dangerous, and they are a major obstacle to Ukraine’s economic development,” Lipson said. “We don’t yet know whether he seriously intends to confront them.”

Overall, Buskey has learned a lot from witnessing these events. “Of course, now my interests have significantly broadened,” she said. “I think that Ukraine is one of the most compelling places in the world to be right now.”