Orange Revolution's Legacy Sours

KIEV, Ukraine -- For Yevhen Zolotaryov, this weekend's presidential election in Ukraine highlights what has gone right since the country's Orange Revolution, not just what has gone wrong.

PORA, the youth pro-democracy movement that sparked the protests in 2004.

This comes as a surprise as the views of Mr Zolotaryov, one of the youth leaders in the 2004 pro-democracy movement, contrast with the way many in Ukraine are disillusioned with the political events of the past six years.

"Many are disappointed, but this is democracy . . . [it was] what we fought for," says Mr Zolotaryov, who is now an ecological activist.

Mr Zolotaryov's bitter-sweet view is shared by other leading activists from the revolution. They are pleased with Ukraine's fierce multi-party competition for power, its media freedoms and an end to the sense of fear that pervaded politics before the Orange Revolution. But, like Mr Zolotaryov, they wish more had been done to promote stability, fight corruption and boost the rule of law.

"Many thought it was enough to hold one big protest, demand democracy and everything will be fine. We achieved democratic elections, but we didn't achieve many other things," says Mr Zolotaryov. "The Orange Revolution was a sweet event for us, but . . . we failed to replace the existing leaders, in part due to our own ambitions and infighting."

Nothing highlights Mr Zolotaryov's argument more clearly than the remarkable comeback of Viktor Yanukovich, the villain from the disputed 2004 election. Rather than being punished by voters for his alleged role in election fraud, he is the frontrunner in Sunday's first round of elections. A second round is likely on February 7.

Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister who rallied citizens behind Viktor Yushchenko's presidential candidacy six years back, trails Mr Yanukovich by a whopping 10 per cent. In a sign of the poisonous atmosphere, Mr Yushchenko is fighting to sabotage her presidential bid.

The nightmare for Orange Revolution supporters started soon after hundreds of thousands of street protesters pinned hopes for justice and improved living standards on Mr Yushchenko.

Their hopes plunged along with Mr Yushchenko's popularity. He proved unable to forge partnerships with either opponents or allies. With each year, political wrestling matches between Kiev's leaders intensified, putting off reforms.

But what looks like a nightmare scenario is actually a victory, activists from the 2004 protests insist.

"I can understand how it looks [like] something went wrong if Yanukovich becomes president," says Vladislav Kaskiv, who, like Mr Zolotaryov, was a leader of Pora, the youth movement that sparked the protests in 2004. He is now a lawmaker in Ms Tymoshenko's camp.

"The victory of the Orange Revolution was not about names but to uphold democracy. However, the fact that nobody was punished for the 2004 election falsification is a bad precedent. They should have started with this," Mr Kaskiv added.

Many citizens see the Orange Revolution as a final turn from Ukraine's authoritarian past but expected faster reforms.

"Many today take for granted the gains in democracy and media freedom, but so much more could have been achieved. We still don't have rule of law or functioning government institutions. Barriers for investors are too high. Living standards improved, but much of the economy is still in the shadows," said Dmytro Potekhin, a civic rights activist.

Petro Kobryn, one of tens of thousands of western Ukrainians who backed Mr Yushchenko in 2004, said: "Ukrainians now see there is no easy solution, no 'miracle' presidential candidate." He worries about a Yanukovich victory.

"Will the country turn into a haven for bandits and oligarchs backing him? Will we be pulled back to Russia? Sadly, if such a risk re-emerges, the politicians fighting against it will not have public support again to hold mass protests. Trust is exhausted."

Ms Tymoshenko is desperate to rally disillusioned citizens against Mr Yanukovich, much like in 2004. Polls show it is her only chance of victory but also show a quarter of citizens are undecided, likely to vote against all candidates, or to not vote at all.

Mr Potekhin hopes "massive disillusionment" will wake up Ukrainians, "encouraging" them to become more involved in grassroots politics and activism.

"Hopefully a new generation of leaders will appear in the next election and they will not allow the system to change them, but will change the system."

Source: FT