The headquarters has the untidy feel of a high school art room—yellow and blue streamers dangle from high ceilings and photos of last year’s revolution plaster the walls. A dozen or so twentysomethings with bags under their eyes toil late into the night. Cell phones chirp incessantly.
The movement is now busy campaigning against a bill endorsed by President Viktor Yushchenko, the hero of last year’s electoral standoff. The bill grants immunity to politicians for alleged crimes committed in the past, and Pora’s true believers see it as a sellout to the former regime and yet another sign of Yushchenko’s unwillingness to fight corruption.
One year after more than a million Ukrainians spilled into Maidan, Kiev’s version of Times Square, to protest a presidential election hijacked by pro-Kremlin forces, disillusionment has set in. Dubbed the Orange Revolution, the revolt swept into power Yushchenko’s pro-reform government.
Yet the majority of Ukrainians, according to a recent poll, say Yushchenko has failed to deliver on his promises to clean up corruption and improve the economy. “They feel like pawns that were offered a lot of promises, but many of them haven’t been realized,” says Andrei Yusov, a Pora leader.
Many Ukrainians now believe that Yushchenko’s mild personality may not match Ukraine’s rough-edged politics. “He’s a soft politician,” says Yuri Temech, a 39-year-old Ukrainian. “His entourage is who’s making the rules and dictating the weather.”
Seventy-three-year-old Maria Yusenko agrees. “He has to become more hardened, because he has a warm soul,” she says. She participated in last year’s protests and now sees a leader under siege. “He is surrounded by his enemies, who limit his actions. His past friends betrayed him.”
She is referring to the so-called orange coalition—a collection of reform-minded politicians from various opposition parties who were given important government posts after the revolution. It was, from the beginning, an awkward marriage. Many of the coalition members agreed with the goals of the orange revolution—more democracy, rule of law, openness—but held opposing views on how best to carry out these reforms.
Too many strong personalities led to political infighting and charges of corruption. Refereeing their competing egos turned out to be a hopeless task. Fed up, Yushchenko sacked his cabinet in early September.
Goddess in Exile
Among those let go was Yulia V. Tymoshenko, an oil tycoon turned populist politician. Her fiery speeches during the Orange Revolution made her a media darling; the Associated Press dubbed her the “Goddess of the Revolution.” As prime minister, she pushed to reexamine thousands of privatization sales, which the former regime often offered at fire-sale prices. A more cautious Yushchenko wanted to review only a handful of the privatization deals. In the end, Tymoshenko was fired.
Charismatic and attractive, Tymoshenko enjoys cult status among many Ukrainians, even when she’s on the sidelines. Her supporters say she represents the true “spirit of Maidan.” William Green Miller, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, describes her as “goal-oriented, extremely intelligent, [and] courageous.”
Her charms aren’t universal, however. Some see her as power-hungry and believe that her attempt to investigate privatization deals was about settling old scores (Tymoshenko, herself a former oligarch, was jailed briefly in 2001 on charges of bribery, money-laundering, and abuse of power).
Then there are those who question her motivations and temperament. “Tymoshenko has always said the right words, but she’s too cocky and loves power too much,” says Natalia Tipko, 44, a former bank clerk from Kiev who supported Tymoshenko briefly before the revolution but then switched to support Yushchenko.
“Tymoshenko’s too emotional,” says Svetlana Grobko, a 20-year-old university student from Chernivtsi. “You can’t be as emotional as she is and be in politics.” Tymoshenko did break down in tears on stage at last month’s celebrations in Maidan marking the Orange Revolution’s one-year anniversary after Yushchenko criticized her policies.
If Tymoshenko is seen as too unstable to lead Ukraine, Yushchenko often appears too rigid. His speeches are long, uninspiring, and sprinkled with clichés. At the rally marking the first anniversary of the revolution, when he could have used the stage to rally Ukrainians behind him, he instead rattled off economic statistics for more than 90 minutes as he lectured the crowd gathered in subzero temperatures on the advances Ukraine has made. Tired and cold, many of those in the crowd left early.
The Corruption Constant
There’s a common complaint that Yushchenko has replaced Ukraine’s former government, which was notoriously secretive, corrupt, and nepotistic, with a new set of unsavory characters. His promise last year of “putting the bandits in jail” has gone unfulfilled.
Specifically, Yushchenko has failed to find the killers who beheaded muckraking journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000, let alone those responsible for poisoning him last year, an assassination attempt that left his face badly disfigured. The cases remain the most potent reminders of Ukraine’s recent ties to Soviet-style politics.
Corruption remains endemic in Ukrainian politics. Ukraine is ranked 113th out of 159 countries in Transparency International’s 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index, well behind neighbors Belarus and Moldova. “When two oligarchs meet each other in parliament,” Tymoshenko told the crowds at a rally in Maidan last month on the anniversary of the revolution.
“Instead of saying, ‘Hello,’ they say, ‘Together we are many and cannot be defeated’”—a play off of last year’s revolutionary slogan. But Tipko, the former bank clerk, says that corruption begins at home, not in parliament. “People have to learn not to sell their vote for 100 hryvnas [$20],” she says. “This is a small detail, but this is what builds corruption.”
Yushchenko admits he has not done enough on this front. “We could have done some things better with reprivatization,” he apologetically told the masses at the recent rally. “To be on Maidan and be the opposition is much different from being in power.” But he urged patience, insisting a year was not enough time to finish his reforms. Tymoshenko seconded this notion.
“It is not a short process. You can’t do everything in an hour. It’s also not easy overseeing 18,000 people in an administration,” she said in her speech. “After the revolution, the orange team thought they’d go into their offices and not talk to the people for another four years, until they’d need their help again.”
There have been other, less profound, mistakes. Yushchenko’s popularity suffered this summer when it was reported that his 19-year-old son Andrey was seen driving around Kiev in a $100,000 BMW. Yushchenko, who earns an annual salary of $60,000, could have let the mini-scandal fade away. Instead, he overreacted, calling the journalist who broke the story an “information killer.” He later apologized for the remark.
Given these missteps, it is not surprising that Yushchenko’s party has fallen behind in recent polls. The political party of his rival in last year’s election, Victor Yanukovich, is now more popular in most polls. But these numbers may say less about Ukraine’s political desires than they do about the country’s stubborn ethnic, linguistic, and geographical divides.
Between 20 and 30 percent of the population, particularly those from the east and south, will always support the pro-Russia party that stands for Ukraine’s old way of doing things, says Alexander Verbylo, a 43-year-old manager of a paper firm in Lviv. “Before Yushchenko, there really only were big businesses. Now you see the emergence of small businesses,” he says. “The election last year was not between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich. It was between Russia and Europe. And Europe won.”
Yushchenko’s supporters aren’t willing to concede that the victory has become hollow. One year is not enough time, they say, to reform a country of 47 million people that has been mismanaged since tsarist times and has few natural resources. And to his credit, Yushchenko’s government has made significant progress in areas such as press freedoms, civil society, and judicial reform, according to a recent report by Freedom House.
Yushchenko inherited a body of federal judges appointed by his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, who had little understanding of Western legal norms. The president’s decision last month to sack the country’s chief prosecutor, Svyatoslav Piskun, a Kuchma appointee, was a step in the right direction (Piskun was widely criticized for failing to bring to justice those responsible for killing Gongadze). Ukraine only recently developed a civil code to protect property rights and patents, among other things. “No one even knew what this was a few years ago,” says Yuri Evgenovich, director of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Legal Foundation, which was instrumental in drafting the code.
Yushchenko has also had some success steering Ukraine’s economy toward the European Union and the World Trade Organization, despite a dip in economic growth from 12 percent last year to less than 4 percent this year. An advocate of free markets, Yushchenko deserves credit for last month's $4.8 billion sale in a televised auction of the Kryvorizhstal mill to Mittal Steel, the world’s largest steel company ($4 billion more than Kuchma’s son-in-law paid for the same mill over a year ago).
Plans are finally under way to privatize Ukrtelekom, the country’s largest telecom. He has nixed more than 4,000 regulations that restricted business registration and also helped balance the budget and pay off Ukraine’s deficit by clamping down on tax evasion and collecting more tax revenue.
Of course, Pora’s reform-minded youths aren’t as impressed. They worry less about economic indicators than about Ukrainians returning to their prerevolution torpor. “Pora’s trying to stir them up,” says Irina Chupryna, head of the organization’s international department. “It’s not that Ukrainians are not interested—they read newspapers, watch the news, complain actively—but it’s difficult to bring them to do something and instill in them [the fact] that they’re the owners of their country.”
For all his recent troubles, Yushchenko still may be Ukraine’s best hope for that kind of deep and lasting democratic reform. There is a continuing reverence for the president. In a busy pub one evening in Kiev, Yushchenko’s visage, still pockmarked from the poison, flickered on televisions. The bar’s boisterous patrons suddenly went silent. The president remains a magnetic—almost mystical—figure for many Ukrainians.
Source: Foreign Policy