MOSCOW, July 27 (RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's acrimonious exchange with a journalist this week is a very telling reflection of Ukraine's troubled Orange Revolution.
When challenged on his son's spending habits and lifestyle, Yushchenko launched into a diatribe that was defiant, at times confused, and directionless.
We may never really know what Yushchenko was thinking when a journalist from Ukrainska Pravda said he wanted to ask a question that "has to do with a much-talked-about issue these days. It's about the president's son - what car he is driving, and other quite expensive items [is he using]? The question has to do with morality - is it moral to use such things in such a country?" Yushchenko could have and probably should have politely declined to answer, citing family privacy. Instead, his aggressive reply touched upon more than the defense of his son - it spoke volumes about the state of the Orange Revolution.
Yushchenko was once the darling of Ukraine's free media. Those days appear to be over. When asked a hard or awkward question, Yushchenko instructed the journalist to "act as an honest journalist and not as a contract killer" and said "let me tell you, friends, such...[questions] should be humiliating for an honest journalist." Some of his strongest supporters during last year's protracted presidential election were in media, particularly journalists at Ukrainska Pravda. Yushchenko now likens some journalists to retired thugs from the security forces.
Many journalists are irresponsible, but Yushchenko's contemptuous attitude only encourages the irresponsible ones and disappoints those who are professional. The Orange Revolution sought to open the government and make it accountable to the public. Yushchenko's comments prove he not up to standard. In fact, his behavior in this case was reminiscent of his predecessor Leonid Kuchma's arrogant treatment of the media.
Yushchenko has also demonstrated that he is touchy about the issue of corruption, particularly allegations of personal wrongdoing. When directly asked about his son's spending habits and lifestyle, Yushchenko proceeded to talk about himself first, "You know, I have lived my life witnessing how people would remain at their posts for half a year and then have to go to prison, usually because these people would steal. My professional life has been in this environment and in this system; many of my colleagues are not there any longer or are still in prison."
Yushchenko's comments amount to an admission of how little has been done to deal with corrupt state officials since the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko and his family may not be corrupt, but there is an acute public awareness that state officials continue to live well at the state's expense. Yet again, the Orange Revolution has not lived up to its promise.
While defending his son, Yushchenko rattled off a rant about personal safety. "Son, I can only help you with one [piece of] advice - learn to protect yourself! Learn to protect yourself!" Yushchenko also responded to rumors that his son is protected by private bodyguards. It is not surprising that Yushchenko is very sensitive about personal safety after being poisoned during last year's presidential campaign.
However, the warning says a lot about Yushchenko's current political predicament. Often at odds with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko over administrative and economic policies, Yushchenko will soon cede to her many of his presidential powers. Tymoshenko is a political rival and with parliamentary elections slated for March 2006, Yushchenko is finding that he has poorly protected his political options, future ambitions and legacy.
Yushchenko's outburst released an enormous sense of frustration, the same frustration many Ukrainians feel demanding justice for murdered journalist Georgy Gongadze. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January, Yushchenko promised that the Gongadze case would go to court by May. This has not happened yet and is very unlikely to happen any time soon given the collective resistance within the security forces to move on the case. The failure to finally close the Gongadze case will seriously damage the legitimacy of those who came to power through the Orange Revolution.
Maybe Yushchenko simply was having a bad day and being forced to defend his son in public sent him reeling. Nonetheless, he revealed in the most vivid way what frustrates him and what has become of the once glorious Orange Revolution.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.