A compromise slowly taking shape may soon redirect the "orange revolution" from the streets to the polling booths, but many here say the past 16 days of peaceful upheaval and sharp public debate have stretched Ukraine's political institutions and changed the country forever.
"I'm very tired and prepared to go home as soon as it's clear we'll get new elections," says Andrei Pashkeyevich, a local disc jockey who's lived in a tent on Kiev's main street, Kreshatik, along with thousands of others, mainly students, from around the country. Their numbers have been dwindling since Ukraine's Supreme Court invalidated the fraud-plagued Nov. 21 presidential election last week and they have relaxed a crippling blockade of government buildings, but they remain the dominant force in central Kiev.
Mr. Pashkeyevich says the experience of public protest has been an education, and if he sees vote-rigging or power abuse in future, he'll be back in the streets in an instant. "We've all learned something through this, and it must never be lost," he says.
Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma still controls the state machine while his anointed heir, Viktor Yanukovich, insists he will run again "and win" in fresh voting slated for Dec. 26, but the liberal challenger Viktor Yushchenko increasingly appears to be the one setting the agenda.
Contentious issues remain, but most experts say the new election will certainly take place and, with a vastly beefed-up foreign observer presence and alert public mood, they are likely to be relatively clean. "I am sure there will be an election, and that Yushchenko will win," says Volodymyr Zmyr, deputy editor of Philosophical and Sociological Thought, an academic journal. "Our society has moved, people have changed so much, it's all different now," he says.
Mr. Kuchma agreed Monday to dismiss the old corruption-tainted Central Election Commission, and called on parliament to pass measures that will ensure a fair and transparent vote. But Tuesday, amid opposition claims that the president was exploiting the crisis to find some means of hanging onto power after his term expires, Kuchma announced the deal had collapsed - the third such compromise to break down in less than a week.
The orange wave in Kiev appears to have forced a rethink in the Kremlin, which openly backed Mr. Yanukovich in last month's now-discredited election. Speaking to journalists during a visit to Turkey, President Vladimir Putin said he "is ready to work with any elected leader" a signal that Moscow may be resigned to a Yushchenko-run Ukraine. And he insisted that Russia's actions "are absolutely tactful throughout the former Soviet space, we are doing nothing clandestine."
Yushchenko wants Yanukovich, officially on vacation, to resign from his job as prime minister and for Ukraine's reluctant Rada, or parliament, to pass laws aimed at making the next round of the elections more transparent and tamper-resistant. The main sticking point is that Yushchenko has alienated some of his own allies, especially Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz, by reneging on an earlier pledge to couple sweeping constitutional reforms, which would weaken presidential powers and strengthen parliament, with the electoral legislation.
"The point of view in Yushchenko's camp right now is, 'Why should we make concessions when the victory should have been ours in the first place?' " says Oleksandr Chernenko, an expert with the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a nongovernmental group. Mr. Chernenko warns that the drift to compromise might yet be derailed. "The 'parties of war' prevail now in both camps. On Yushchenko's side, many doubt the usefulness of talking with Yanukovich at all," he says.
The street protesters, especially the militant student core, are another potential wild card. "Nobody here wants new elections with Yanukovich, the destroyer of Ukraine," says Jemma Koblenz, who speaks for a group of students from Lvov.
"These compromises are not good, even for Yushchenko. If we don't start to see some progress, we'll take some radical actions. We'll go home when we have victory. Not before, even if Yushchenko tells us to go."
Expert say it's ironic that Kuchma is championing constitutional changes that would redress the imbalance between president and parliament, after a decade in office that has seen him amass vast powers. Nevertheless, many see the reforms as crucial to prevent Ukraine from sliding into one-man rule as neighboring Russia and Belarus have done. But opposition leaders view the issue as an attempt to steal Yushchenko's imminent victory.
"[The draft law] stipulates that the Rada will get practically all powers of the president. If it's approved, the presidential elections will lose all meaning," Yuliya Tymoshenko, a top Yushchenko ally, told the Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta Tuesday. "This would betray millions of people who are struggling for Yushchenko's victory."
But some pro-Yushchenko demonstrators say they like the idea of constitutional changes that would make Ukraine more like the parliamentary states of Western Europe. "A stronger parliament would be a very good thing in this country," says Ms. Koblenz. "It's just that the parliament we have right now is a bad one. Maybe we need to change it too, after we have a new president."
Like many of the students camped out on Kiev's main streets, Koblenz says she and her friends are not there to support Yushchenko, but to change Ukraine.
"Yushchenko is the best leader we have, but if he changes his position we'll go against him in a minute," she says. "What we want is a free Ukraine, a democratic country where the people rule. That's what we're proving here."