Ukraine assesses 'orange' year

Economic woes, political battles have roiled the nation since last year's revolution.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

All through the election night of Nov. 21 the rumors flew, by telephone, Internet, and word of mouth.

"People were saying, 'The election has been stolen, the fraud is massive.' " recalls Maxym Savanevsky, an activist in last year's Orange Revolution, which shook Ukraine from its formerly docile, post-Soviet mold.

In the next morning's cold dawn, as early returns seemed to put pro-Moscow presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich far in the lead, people began streaming into Kiev's central square, Maidan, to protest.

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"Everyone had orange flags, scarves, ribbons," says Mr. Savanevsky. "Someone started putting up tents, and we knew it wasn't going to be over soon.... On that first night we feared the police would storm us. We'd never confronted the authorities like this before.

"By the next day, people began arriving from the regions. More people than I've ever seen," he says. "It was then I thought: 'Hey, this is a revolution!' "

Ukrainians are marking the first anniversary of their orange upheaval this week with an odd mix of pride, disillusionment, and apprehension.

The tense weeks of protest, keeping the pressure on until opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko was overwhelmingly elected in fresh, democratically run polls on Dec. 26, changed the country forever, says Yaroslav Vedmid, another participant in the protests.

"No matter who comes to power in future, they will fear the peoples' anger," he says. "People have learned that they can make change happen."

But in recent months the revolution's two leaders, Mr. Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, have fallen out amid bitter mutual recriminations, causing a deep split in the ruling orange coalition.

Under their management, Ukraine's economic growth has plunged to 4 percent this year from a bubbly 12 percent in 2004. A recent survey found 68 percent of Ukrainians "disappointed" in current authorities. Meanwhile, the party of the defeated Mr. Yanukovich, whom many accuse of rigging last year's vote, is in the lead for parliamentary polls expected to take place next March.

"The revolution raised society's consciousness and created very high expectations," says Vadim Karasov, director of the independent Institute for Global Strategy in Kiev. "Things have cooled off, and people now say they are disillusioned, but this reflects the contrast between their hopes and current reality. They still support the goals of the revolution, but perhaps have lost faith in individual leaders."

Last September, a leading official went public with allegations of massive corruption within the president's inner circle. Yushchenko responded by firing the entire government, including the firebrand prime minister, Ms. Tymoshenko, and brought in a Russian-born technocrat, Yuriy Yekhanurov.

The crisis stunned many Ukrainians. "The speeches of our leaders were what raised our hopes and kept us going at times when we were fearful we might lose," says Mr. Vedmid.

Tymoshenko declared her alliance with Yushchenko "dissolved" and swore to run against his party in the parliamentary elections. Even more jolting for many was Yushchenko's decision to do a deal with Yanukovich's party in order to win Mr. Yekhanurov's parliamentary ratification as prime minister. Among the concessions made, Yushchenko pledged to drop an official investigation into last year's electoral fraud.

Surveys also suggest that little has been done to heal the rift between Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern regions, whose industries rely on trade links with Russia, and the largely agricultural, Ukrainian-speaking west, where many want economic integration with Europe. A poll by the Ukrainian Institute of Social Research found that Yanukovich's Regions Party, which draws its strength from the east, is supported by 20 percent of committed voters. Tymoshenko's had 13.8 percent support, followed by Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Party with 12.3 percent.

For some of last year's revolutionaries, the disarray suggests a need for ongoing grass-roots pressure. "We don't trust the ruling circles," says Sergiy Yevtushenko, deputy chair of Pora, the student movement that provided much of the determination and most of the round-the-clock protesters. "They promised much, but aren't necessarily ready to deliver. They need a watchdog."

Pora has split into two wings. One wants to remain a street-level pressure group. The other hopes to transform itself into a political party in time to contest the March elections. Both want their constituency - students - to stay involved in political struggle. "Most influenced by the revolution were youths; they were deeply shaped by that moment of achieving freedom and fairness," says Mr. Yevtushenko, who intends to run for parliament. "Youths are the force who will be most active in future in defending civic rights and deepening the democratic process."

A sweeping constitutional compromise, which ended last year's confrontation, takes effect in January and could set the stage for fresh political crisis. Under the deal, many former presidential powers will be handed to parliament, including the right to name the prime minister and cabinet.

But, says Mr. Karasov, "no matter who wins the March elections, as long as they are free and fair, it will testify that the main goal of the orange revolution - democratization - was successfully achieved. Even if Yanukovich became prime minister, he could never return Ukraine to the past. We are already a different country."

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