Monday, November 28, 2005

Bloom is Off the Orange Revolution

KIEV, Ukraine -- Crowds descended on Kiev's main square Tuesday to celebrate the first anniversary of the start of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the weeks of mass protests of election fraud that ushered the opposition into power.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (R) speaks as sacked Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (L) applauds during a huge rally at the Indepedence Square in Kiev November 22, 2005

As a light snow fell, many supporters bundled up in orange scarves for the celebrations, featuring an address by President Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev's Independence Square, the site of the rallies last year.

The festivities were muted by Ukrainians' disappointment with the failure since the upheaval last year to achieve rapid progress in eliminating the poverty and widespread corruption in this former Soviet republic. However, Mr. Yushchenko, who defeated his Russian-backed rival on a platform promising to bring Ukraine closer to the West, told AP in an interview hours before the event that there was much of which Ukraine could be proud.

He wore a tie in the shade of bright orange that was his campaign's color.

Also addressing the crowd was Yulia Tymoshenko, a one-time Orange Revolution ally and now a chief political competitor after bitter rivalry drove them apart.

Nostalgia, a year later

As evening fell, the square filled with people, although in numbers far short of the massive crowds a year earlier.

Then, millions jammed the streets to protest fraud in the bitter election. They chanted "Yu-shchen-ko!" and set up a sprawling tent camp, bringing life in this city of more than 2 million to a halt.

A repeat runoff ordered by the Supreme Court led to Mr. Yushchenko's election.

"It was a turning point in the life of the nation," said Dasha Lysenko, 17, a student who spent two months in the opposition tent camps last year. "We stood on the square, not for politicians but for the ideals, for freedom."

With opinion polls showing a majority thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction, there's a natural inclination to fall back on the heady days of November 2004.

"For maybe the first time, the whole world learned where Ukraine was -- and not because of Chernobyl or some other catastrophe but because of the revolution ... it defined us," said Petro Poroshenko, a tycoon whose TV station broke through the government's press blackout to show the nation of 47 million what was unfolding in Kiev.

The Orange Revolution began hours after the polls for the presidential election closed on Nov. 21 last year. As the Central Election Commission began churning out fraudulent vote counts in favor of Russia's man, Viktor Yanukovych, reformist candidate Mr. Yushchenko summoned his partisans to Independence Square.

Court ordered second vote

They poured in, pitching hundreds of tents, setting up outdoor kitchens and vowing to stay until justice prevailed. Disciplined, cheerful, even picking up their cigarette butts, they demanded freedom and democracy. After 70 years as a Soviet republic, and another 15 feeling the rigors of the free market, many simply wanted Ukraine to be a normal European country.

"Yu-shchen-ko!" they chanted through the night. Sometimes, it was more rock concert than revolution.

Riot police stood ready. Departing President Leonid Kuchma went on television and called for an end to "this so-called revolution." European envoys scrambled to mediate. Politicians in the Russian-speaking provinces talked secession.

Twelve days later, the Supreme Court declared the vote count fraudulent and ordered the election rerun. Kiev erupted in fireworks and spelled Mr. Yushchenko's name in lights on the buildings around the square.

"The revolution became a symbol of the spirit and patriotism of Ukraine," said Mr. Yushchenko's former chief of staff, Oleksandr Zinchenko. "It wasn't just about one person ... it was about our freedom."

Last Dec. 26, Mr. Yushchenko won the rerun. Mr. Yanukovych fought on in the courts but to no avail, and Mr. Yushchenko was sworn in as president.

But the good will didn't last

The revolutionaries were a mismatched group of reformers, socialists, and populists united only by their hatred of Mr. Kuchma's corrupt regime. They had scores to settle, and some had political skeletons to hide. They inherited a nation divided between the pro-Russia east and the nationalist west. With just 52 percent of the votes, Mr. Yushchenko's victory was less than a landslide.

Initially, the new government plunged into action with pension and salary increases, sacked 18,000 bureaucrats and summoned former officials for questioning. Mr. Yushchenko traveled to the hostile east to publicly berate officials and remind them that he was "the president of the whole country." Demonstrators pelted him with snowballs.

One of the most contentious issues was the murky privatization deals during the Kuchma era, when much of the state's prime industry was sold cheap to insiders. Here the cracks in the government became obvious.

Inside deals challenged

New Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the president's glamorous, energetic ally, wanted hundreds of these deals revoked and the properties resold. Mr. Yushchenko resisted such a radical strategy.

The Tymoshenko government's heavy hand spooked investors. It also was blamed for triggering a jump in meat, sugar and gas prices by trying to impose price controls. Ukraine's economic growth slid below 4 percent, a shock after the soaring 12 percent of 2004, partly in response to lower world prices for its main metals exports.

In September, Mr. Yushchenko fired Mrs. Tymoshenko.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians complain that the revolution has failed to deliver on promises to improve living standards and restore trust in government, that it has been tarnished by claims of corruption and backroom political deals, and that Mr. Yushchenko is cozying up to the revolution's enemies.

Mr. Zinchenko has quit as Mr. Yushchenko's chief of staff and has accused former colleagues of corruption. One of those he accused is Mr. Poroshenko, the TV tycoon, who then had led the government's powerful Security and Defense Council. He quit over the corruption accusations and was later cleared of wrongdoing, though the former top prosecutor claims it cost him his job.

In an attempt to mollify his opponents in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Yushchenko signed a truce with Mr. Yanukovych that promises immunity from prosecution to those involved in election fraud in exchange for the opposition's parliamentary support for Mr. Yushchenko's new prime minister. He also has sent conciliatory messages to the Kremlin.

Mr. Yushchenko insists that Ukraine is still eagerly knocking on the doors of NATO and the European Union, though neither appears to be in any rush to respond. And not only is Russia a key economic partner, but the two countries' ties of history, culture, religion and language make a rupture impossible.

"The revolution couldn't carry on indefinitely," said analyst Mykhailo Pohrebinsky. "At some point, the government had to settle down."

President gets credit

Opinion polls show that Ukrainians credit Mr. Yushchenko with advancing democracy and freedom and improving Ukraine's international image. An example of the new openness: Just this month, Mr. Yushchenko took both friendly and hostile questions on live television from students on the hot-button issues of the day.

Andriy Yusov, a leading member of Pora, a youth group that was one of the driving forces of the Orange Revolution protests, concedes, despite his pessimism, that at least the controversy over Mrs. Tymoshenko, Mr. Yushchenko's first prime minister, played out on the nation's nightly news and not behind closed doors, as in the past.

"The people and the government have become closer," he said, "but it is not because the government moved closer to the people. It's the people who stepped right up into the face of the government."

At the televised session with students, Mr. Yushchenko, 51, reminded the youngsters of how much he had paid, personally and physically, for his country's sake.

"I sit in front of you without my own face," he said, referring to the pockmarks and swelling that still show from his dioxin poisoning last year -- a mystery still unsolved but widely viewed as an attempt to derail his presidential bid.

"I think that I drank not only my dose but also a dose for all of you, as we lived in a regime that didn't allow us to live," he said.

Source: AP

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