It’s almost 17 years since the
iron curtain came down, but our media coverage of Europe still tends to
confine itself mostly to the western half. Ukraine, which is bigger
than France and has more people than Spain, popped onto our TV screens
briefly during the “Orange Revolution” of November-December 2004, but
since then has rarely been mentioned.

This is a pity, because an engrossing political drama has been played out there in recent months, finally culminating
on Friday in the approval by the Ukrainian parliament of Viktor
Yanukovych as the new prime minister. Yanukovych was initially declared
the winner of the disputed 2004 presidential election, but following
massive street protests the election was annulled and re-run, being won
convincingly by the current pro-western incumbent, Viktor Yushchenko.

appointed his close ally Julia Tymoshenko as prime minister, and
Ukraine embarked on a program of liberalisation intended to equip it,
eventually, for EU membership. But Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had a
falling-out, and their parties contested last March’s parliamentary
elections as rivals. This allowed Yanukovych to make a comeback: his
pro-Russian “Party of Regions” won the largest share of seats, although
well short of a majority.

Since then, the politicians have been
trying to put together a stable combination. More than once, Yushchenko
and Yanukovych seemed on the verge of going into coalition together,
despite their history (Yushchenko had accused Yanukovych of poisoning
him during the 2004 campaign). Then Yushchenko and Tymoshenko put aside
their differences and tried to reassemble the Orange coalition. But
their ally, the Socialist Party, defected to the Yanukovych camp and,
together with the small Communist party, that was enough to give them a

Yushchenko then had to decide whether he would
nominate Yanukovych as prime minister, or call for fresh elections.
After obtaining from Yanukovych a promise that he would not reverse the
country’s pro-western policies, Yushchenko agreed to his appointment
last week.

To see the subtext of this manoeuvring, have a look at the electoral map
on Wikipedia. It shows a stark geographical divide: Yanukovych’s party
dominates the south and east, the pro-western parties the northwest.
The rivals will have to learn to work together if Ukraine is to remain
viable as a single state.

Then again, when I was a young
psephologist, the electoral map of greater Melbourne looked much the
same – Labor all on one side, Liberals on the other. We survived that
period without civil war breaking out. Let’s hope Ukraine can do the