Suddenly, Ukraine faces another stark choice: dismiss the government and parliament and hold new elections, or see the country's independence surrendered bit by bit. There is renewed talk, too, of violent civil unrest. None of this should be surprising, given how our corrupt rulers systematically incite regional and ethnic hatred.
Some say that President Viktor Yushchenko's decision this week to dismiss Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich's government was unwarranted. They are wrong: Yushchenko's actions were necessary because the Yanukovych government, in clear violation of the law, was preparing to mount a constitutional coup that would have stripped the president of his remaining supervisory powers over the army and police. Either the president acted now, or Ukraine would return to the absolute rule of criminal clans that existed before our Orange Revolution in 2004.
I did not agree with Yushchenko's decision to appoint Yanukovych prime minister following last year's parliamentary election. For a democratic-minded president to co-habit (as the French call it) with the very man who sought to sabotage Ukraine's last presidential ballot would, I knew, provoke institutional paralysis and political chaos. And so it has.
But the ultimate shortcoming of that cohabitation was its curtailment of the democratic process. Ukraine's democrats, who won that election, were denied their voice and their place in government. Yushchenko offered his hand to his foes in good faith so as to bind up our nation's wounds; in return, the governing pact that he reached with Yanukovych was betrayed at every turn. A new election will restore democratic choice -- and thus revitalize our democracy.
Europe and the world are, of course, right to worry. But Ukraine has changed dramatically since the Orange Revolution. Even those Europeans who believe -- wrongly -- that democracy does not easily take root in post-Soviet countries should recognize that our people now feel empowered. A country that emerged so recently from one period of dictatorship is unlikely to volunteer for another at the hands of a man who sought to falsify the presidential election of 2004.
Economic growth since the Orange Revolution reinforces that reluctance, because an expanding middle class nearly always prefers the flexibility of pluralism to the thump of an authoritarian's fist. The general election called for May 27 will help to keep things this way.
But the dangers that Ukraine faces are serious, stemming from problems -- particularly fragile institutions and economic dislocation -- that are common to every young post-communist democracy, as well as from some special problems of its own. Many of Ukraine's richest citizens, who gained their wealth through the crony capitalism that is the only way Yanukovych knows how to govern, remain unreconciled to Ukraine's democracy. For them, manufactured discontent in Ukraine's Russian-speaking regions -- which have embraced a centrifugal tendency greater than in any other European democracy -- impels them toward the system of managed democracy found in Russia in order to protect their continued misrule.
A decade ago, the world had a foretaste of what can happen when ethnic divisions are exploited for sinister political purposes. Yugoslavia is but a miniature version of what might happen in Ukraine if Yanukovych's tactics are allowed to bring ethnic antagonisms to the boiling point.