Grim Ending To Ukraine's 'Orange' Fairy Tale

KIEV, Ukraine -- For thousands of jubilant Ukrainians crammed into Kiev's main square on Jan. 23, 2005, a duo of pro-Western politicians were a prince and princess ready to whisk them to a magic land of EU membership and prosperity.

Protesters rally around a Vladimir Lenin monument, seen in the background, in central Donetsk, Ukraine, on Friday. About 30,000 activists from the opposition Party of Regions waved blue flags and chanted 'Crisis Stop!' and 'Down with the Authorities!'' Opposition activists around the country are holding anti-government protests, demanding early elections amid a worsening financial crisis.

Now with the so-called Orange Revolution that swept the old order from power a distant memory, the tale of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko is, like many folk tales, heading for a somewhat macabre end.

A victorious Yushchenko took the acclaim of the crowds that day after finally being inaugurated president after a disputed election. Tymoshenko would a few days later become his prime minister.

But now Ukraine is among the countries worldwide worst hit by the economic crisis and the two leaders have been engaged in a poisonous feud that has made them a laughing stock in the media.

With next presidential elections expected in January, Yushchenko's poll ratings are languishing at less than three percent, possibly making him the most unpopular elected head of state in the world.

"The economic crisis is more serious than in other countries. But there is another factor: the political instability and constant crisis situation," said the director of the Penta political research center Volodymyr Fesenko.

"There is a great disappointment with the existing political leadership."

The vast independence square in central Kiev that was the main arena for 2004's peaceful uprising is now inhabited by the grubby tents of protesters who have been staging a sit-in against the ruling elite over the past four weeks.

"Get Usikh!" reads the Ukrainian-language slogan of one movement daubed on its tents along with a broom. "Clear Out!"

The country's economy is paying for its continued reliance on exports from Soviet-era heavy industry, whose production has slumped by more than 30 percent as global demand slumped for metal and mining products.

Only now have Yushchenko and Tymoshenko agreed to a formal ceasefire in their public battle, a condition set by the International Monetary Fund to give out a US$1.9 billion tranche of a standby loan vital for staving off the risk of default.

The weekly Fokus put the pair on its cover as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia from the "Star Wars" films, under the headline "With Whom Will the Force Be?." The Korrespondent meanwhile portrayed the pair as child vagabonds in rags with the headline "The Children of Default."

A twist in the tale?

With the current story ending so badly, the question is what the next chapter will hold for the 46 million inhabitants of Europe's largest country.

Yushchenko seems out of the frame, and the latest poll by the Razumkov center think tank shows his vanquished opponent from 2004, Viktor Yanukovich, leading with 19.5 percent and Tymoshenko second with 17.9 percent.

The charismatic Tymoshenko, who still styles her hair with traditional Ukrainian braids, is conventionally seen as a pro-Western figure while Yanukovich draws his support from pro-Moscow Russian speaking regions.

"For the moment, Tymoshenko is the favorite and she has a very good and strong team. But the crisis is working against her. With every week of the crisis, her chances of victory become worse," commented Fesenko.

But labels are a tricky business in Ukraine's shifting political world and it was Tymoshenko who signed the deal with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ending the New Year gas crisis.

Oleksandr Lytvynenko, senior political analyst at Razumkov center, said it would be wrong to see Yanukovich's Party of the Regions as an unambiguously pro-Russian force.

"They can come up with pro-Russian slogans but Yanukovich accused Tymoshenko of acting in Moscow's interests when she signed the deal to end the gas conflict."

"It is a party that is not interested in the integration of Ukraine into Russia but with obtaining power in Ukraine itself. The party was always like this."

Adding further intrigue is speculation that Tymoshenko could form an alliance with Yanukovich which could see her staying as prime minister and the latter working as a more ceremonial president.

And as if that was not enough, the Kiev political world has been abuzz with talk that an outside figure could spring to prominence in the elections.

Areseniy Yatseniuk, 34, a pro-Western protege of Yushchenko and an ex-parliament speaker, is winning around 12 percent of the vote in presidential opinion polls although he is only just forming a political faction.

Meanwhile, the establishment was rocked by the surprise victory of the Freedom movement of Oleh Tyahnybok, known for his populist Ukrainian nationalist rhetoric, in elections in the western Ternopil region this month.

"Many people are saying that those in power are yesterday's people and new faces are needed. There is a demand for something new," said Lytvynenko.

But for all the bitter disappointments, there have been dramatic changes within society since the Orange Revolution removed a corrupt regime that often seemed stuck in a Soviet time warp.

"The relationship between people and politics has changed. It has become more rational, critical. There is no sign of the extent of stagnation in public consciousness that there was before 2004," said Lytvynenko.

Source: AFP