For more than two weeks, a few thousand students hunkered in a sprawling military-style encampment planted in the heart of Kiev have left the world gasping in wonder and Ukraine's leaders quaking in their boots. They've been here since Nov. 21, protesting the results on the country's questionable presidential election.
But as they were ordered by leaders to begin folding tents and prepare to leave the barricades Wednesday, many of those radical, mostly youthful protesters wondered about the fate of their "orange revolution" - part street carnival, part urban revolt - and whether it was ending in victory or defeat. A compromise package of reforms overwhelmingly passed Wednesday by Ukraine's Rada, the parliament, ensures there will be new elections on Dec. 26 governed by tough new antifraud rules, as demanded by opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. But the same deal, signed by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, also mandates sweeping constitutional changes that will weaken the next president, strengthen parliament, and give more power to Ukraine's rebellious eastern regions.
Mr. Kuchma praised the deal as a triumph of compromise over conflict. "Over the past century Ukraine has often fallen into political crisis, but there was always enough common sense and determination to find the right solution," he said.
But critics, including many street protesters, view the changes as a cynical attempt by Kuchma to hang onto power by using his strong political base in parliament. "We've been robbed," says Roman Kolesnyk, from the central Ukrainian region of Zhitomir, who's been in the street camp for two weeks. "We came here to make Yushchenko our president, but now the Rada has just arranged that when Yushchenko wins he'll have no power. He'll be a symbolic leader, like the Queen of England."
Amid a lukewarm celebration - cake was passed around - some students indicated they would accept the compromise and go home. Others said they'll stay put until after the new elections safely put Yushchenko in power. Still others said they would go to the Russified eastern Ukraine, which voted heavily for pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovich, to win votes for Yushchenko. "The eastern Ukraine is like a totalitarian state," says Mr. Kolesnyk. "They have no information, and without that they can't make a free choice."
The tent city on Kreshatik, Kiev's main avenue, may have looked like a two-week rock festival, with its hordes of unshaven youth, graffiti-covered tents, and constant blaring music. But underneath, it throbbed with serious purpose. The gates were guarded by paramilitaries, who checked everyone's ID. Students inside were sworn to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and sex, and they conducted military-style patrols around the camp's perimeter. They were fed regularly by local volunteers, who brought pots of steaming borsch, loaves of black bread, and platters of steamed potatoes.
"We have a commandant who keeps discipline here," says Bogdan Todchuk, a physics student from Uman, in western Ukraine, who drove to Kiev the day after the fraud-tainted Nov. 21 polls. "It's the only way we could keep this going, keep it peaceful and focused."
Mr. Todchuk says his dream is a Ukraine that would finally be free from Russian influence after nearly four centuries of domination. "Now we have a chance to become a truly independent country," he says. "Moscow is trying to build a new empire, but without Ukraine it can't succeed. On the contrary, if we build democracy here, it means Russia will eventually have to become democratic, too."
The camp has its own uniformed but unarmed paramilitary force - called the Sons of Independent Ukraine - made up of former Ukrainian soldiers. They kept the peace, ejected hecklers and, perhaps, prepared to defend the camp in case of assault by security police. "We don't have guns. Our only weapons are words," says Serhei Kashuba, an officer in the force.
Most participants insist the "orange revolution" happened spontaneously, drawing on experience of previous anti-Kuchma protest movements, but propelled by outrage over evidence the election had been stolen. "On the night of the elections, people just drifted to the maidan [Kiev's central square], wondering what to do about this terrible fraud that had taken place," says Margarita Razumova, an associate professor of math at Kiev's Shevchenko University. "There was a stage there, and people began getting up and making suggestions. One Rada deputy remembered that there were 1,600 tents left over from [a 2002 protest] and someone was delegated to go and get them. That's how it started."
Russian commentators have accused the West of planning and financing the revolt to overturn the election of Mr. Yanukovich. Some point to a shadowy student group called Pora (It's Time) which, they say, looks suspiciously like similar movements that powered recent Serbian and Georgian democratic upheavals. Pora, which claims to have about 10,000 members, says it's just a civic group that promotes "national democratic ideas" and mobilizes people to defend their rights. It's leaders deny any foreign sponsorship.
"We never had a student movement on this scale in Ukraine before - politics was always the arena for older people," says Andrei Yusov, a spokesman for Pora. He says the recent "Rose Revolution" in Georgia was an inspiration, but Ukrainian students acted on their own to combat vote-rigging and power abuse. "We have got some experience now, and if there is any falsification of elections again, we'll be back in the streets immediately," he says.