Ukrainians Lament 'Lost Hopes' After Orange Revolution

KIEV, Ukraine -- Night after night, he appeared onstage here in a downtown plaza, his face ashen and pocked with cysts from a poisoning attempt on his life. At his feet were legions of Ukrainians wedged shoulder to shoulder, gleefully screaming his name until their throats were raw.

Yushchenko in December 2004.

Viktor Yushchenko was the agent of change, followers of the 2004 Orange Revolution believed, a pathway to an era when rule of law would supplant corruption and cronyism. In the West, politicians held him up as the bulwark against Russian aggression. Not long after he led daily demonstrations that culminated in his ascent to the presidency, oddsmakers had him on their shortlist for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Today on the streets of Kiev—where Ukrainians cram into bank lobbies to pull their life's savings out before the money vanishes into Ukraine's economic black hole—Yushchenko is the incarnation of dashed dreams.

"This presidency has been all about lost time, lost opportunities and a lot of lost hopes of Ukrainians for a better life," said Dmitro Kazmirchuk, 28, a Kiev businessman. "No leader has ever been as trusted by Ukrainians as Yushchenko was. And now the people won't trust anyone anymore."

Yushchenko's tumultuous first term as president is in its final year. He can run for another term in elections scheduled for this winter, but with approval ratings that have plunged to under 2 percent, his chances for victory would be minuscule.

By all accounts, it's an ignominious end to a presidency that began on the shoulders of one of most improbable events in post-Soviet history.

In a country where Kremlin-connected autocrats kept a population of 46 million on a tight leash, tens of thousands of Ukrainians rose up and compelled the government to overturn a rigged presidential vote. The Kremlin's candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, was forced into a rematch with Yushchenko that Yushchenko won through the appeal of people power.

The 2004 bloodless uprising would come to be known as the Orange Revolution, and it gave Yushchenko a powerful burst of momentum as he tried to steward Ukraine toward integration with the West.

That momentum disappeared long ago. In a series of interviews in Kiev, former members of Yushchenko's team talk of a president who was fatally distracted by political dogfights with his onetime Orange Revolution ally and current prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, and with Yanukovych.

Yushchenko's advisers say he also lacked the political will to combat corruption, a cancer in Ukrainian society that Yushchenko had told throngs of orange-clad Ukrainians in Kiev he would eradicate.

Yushchenko made his country a staunch ally of the U.S., but the political and economic stability that Washington wanted for Ukraine never took root. The Bush administration had hoped Ukraine would one day join the European Union and NATO; today those goals seem distant.

Oleg Rybachuk, Yushchenko's former chief of staff and a longtime friend, says five years of warring with political foes in Kiev and the Kremlin have taken a harsh toll on the Ukrainian leader.

"My impression is that I feel my president is very lonely," said Rybachuk. "You can feel that, you can see that. He's not smiling anymore."

Yushchenko declined a request for an interview. He has said that his leadership has been hamstrung by political power plays and changes to Ukraine's constitution that diminished presidential authority. And, he has said, the country has ably detached itself from the authoritarianism of years past.

"Believe me, the last four years have not been the worst time in the life of Ukraine," Yushchenko told a Kiev magazine earlier this year. "I do not want the nation to live as it did in 1990, 1991, 1993 or 2000—any of those years."

Unlike Tymoshenko, known as a fiery speaker and crafty political strategist, Yushchenko was an unlikely choice to lead the opposition movement.

As Ukraine's Central Bank chairman in the 1990s, he won praise as a skillful economist who reined in runaway inflation and steered the country from the brink of default during the 1998 Russian financial crisis. But he was never seen as a charismatic figure.

That was Tymoshenko's job. When they appeared on stage in 2004 to rally Ukrainians against elections rigged to put Yanukovych into power, Yushchenko was professorial and stiff while Tymoshenko was the firebrand exhorting people to form human blockades around key government buildings.

After his inauguration in 2005 with his wife, Chicagoan Kateryna Yushchenko, and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell nearby, Yushchenko took the helm of a country braced for sweeping political and economic reform.

In certain areas, he succeeded. Elections since 2004 have been regarded as fair contests. The media, muzzled in the 1990s during the rule of Kremlin-backed leader Leonid Kuchma, broadcast and wrote freely about Ukrainian politics and society under Yushchenko.

But other crucial reforms including the battle against corruption never got off the ground, because Yushchenko failed to purge government of wealthy, power-hungry businessmen who exploited their offices for personal gain.

With every crisis Yushchenko faced, his popularity with Ukrainians diminished. The latest row with the Kremlin over natural-gas prices doubled the price Ukraine pays for gas, putting a severe strain on the country's steel mills and factories. Ukraine is on the verge of economic collapse, a crisis triggered by the global financial meltdown but worsened by wrangling between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.

"He never sought ways to actually influence the economy or put forward an anti-corruption agenda," said Rostislav Pavlenko, a former analyst in Yushchenko's administration. "Instead, he paid more attention to speeches and accusations."

Along the way, Yushchenko has had to cope with the pain and disfigurement associated with the poisoning attempt on his life in 2004, a crime Ukrainian authorities have yet to solve. Doctors determined that dioxin was the toxic agent used, and the toll that it exacted on Yushchenko was more than physical.

"Yushchenko was handsome and liked by women, very relaxed and good-humored," Rybachuk said. "After the poisoning, he told me that every time he saw himself in the mirror, it shocked him. He felt like his identity has been stolen."

Those close to Yushchenko's team say he hasn't ruled out a run for a second presidential term. "If he runs," said Pavlenko, "it would be to deliver his message that he was right all along, and that he was misunderstood."

Right now, that message would be a hard sell for most Ukrainians.

"At a time of financial crisis, I see no actions from the president, not a single project or law to support people who have lost almost everything," said Irina Svitovskaya, 44, owner of a beauty salon in Kiev. "He has lost the people's trust."

Source: Chicago Tribune