Even on election day, 'Orange' rebels remain
Ukrainains voted Sunday in the third round of their presidential election.
KIEV, UKRAINE — As millions of Ukrainians went to the polls Sunday in an unprecedented third round of voting for president, Roman Tsipino remained in the spot where the country's students ignited the "Orange Revolution."
And he says he isn't budging any time soon. For him and about a thousand other democratic activists, the revolution has just begun.
"We are not leaving our posts in the tent city until [Viktor] Yushchenko is inaugurated as president and [Viktor] Yanukovich and [acting president Leonid] Kuchma are in jail," says Tsipino, a young construction worker from Poltava, in central Ukraine.
Mr. Tsipino voted Sunday at an absentee ballot box brought to the tent city in downtown Kiev where he and other activists have lived since learning more than a month ago that the last presidential election was rigged in favor of Moscow-backed candidate Mr. Yanukovich.
He is thin and pale. His hands are still bandaged from the frostbite he suffered during the early days of the revolution last month, when the thermometer plunged to -20 degrees C. Seated on his styrofoam pallet in the military-style tent he shares with 30 others he says that if Mr. Yushchenko wins, it will not be the end of the revolution but "a good beginning."
"This is the last chance to settle everything peacefully. But we are expecting trouble. No one believes this regime will go quietly," he says.
Many Ukrainians voting in heavily pro-Yushchenko Kiev Sunday seemed to be in a somewhat different mood, hoping for some closure after a month of turmoil that has paralyzed the capital's downtown and inflicted untold damage on Ukraine's economy.
"I hope this crisis is over now and we can just get back to normal life," said Irina Chalaya, a middle-aged technical worker who voted at a suburban polling station. "Everyone is afraid these events will go on, or take some new turn, and we will have more tensions. I'm praying that this election is the end of it."
Opinion surveys taken last week variously showed Yushchenko ahead by 7 to 11 points, though such polls have a dismal track record in this politically polarized nation of 48 million. Official results may not be announced for days, but exit polls were expected to be available soon after the close of voting Sunday.
This extraordinary third round between Yushchenko and Yanukovich was ordered by Ukraine's Supreme Court after 17 days of continuous street protests - spearheaded by activists like Tsipino barricaded in their tent city - and forced the government to concede that Yanukovich's officially announced victory was hopelessly tainted by electoral fraud.
More than 12,500 international observers were on hand, about one for every three Ukrainian polling stations, to scrutinize the voting. Even some observers said they were confused about the exact rules in force on election day.
On Saturday, the Constitutional Court created ripples by ordering local election commissions to provide mobile ballot boxes for any infirm or elderly person who asked to vote at home. Absentee and mobile voting was identified as a major tool of fraud in the last round and severely curbed under new rules passed by parliament two weeks ago. But Yanukovich had protested that the restrictions would disenfranchise millions of his supporters.
Most Kievites appeared to be hoping that Yushchenko would prevail, and that his margin would be big enough to forestall any doubts about its authenticity.
"The worst thing would be if Yushchenko only wins by 3 percent, like Yanukovich did last time," says Rostislav Sali, a Kiev radio journalist. "Then all the Yanukovich supporters will claim that they were cheated and there will be more trouble, more conflict. There has to be a decisive victory."
Yanukovich has warned that he will launch a "storm of legal challenges" if Yushchenko wins, and some of his supporters have threatened to flood into Kiev from their strongholds in eastern Ukraine to hold their own revolution. "We've heard they're coming and we're ready for them," says Tsipino. "We are expecting all kinds of provocations and trouble. This is not over yet."
Tsipino says that a Yushchenko victory must be followed up with sweeping actions to reduce Russian influence in Ukraine, fight the rich "oligarchs" who dominate the economy and reduce poverty. "I want to live in a normal country, where people can live in dignity and each can have the opportunity to fulfill his potential," he says. "Ukraine today is something totally different from that."
The radicals who set up the barricaded tent city in Kiev a month ago received a hero's welcome from much of the local population. Following the Supreme Court decision to call fresh elections earlier this month, most folded their tents and went home. But about 1,000 are still there, many arguing, like Tsipino, that the "Orange Revolution" remains unfinished. But the gifts of food and supplies that sustained them in early days have dried up, and some Kievites are clearly cooling to their presence. "They played their role, but it's about time they went back to their studies and their jobs," says Maya Panasyuk, an accountant. "We need to get back to normal."
Ideas of radical social transformation are all very well, say others, but the "orange revolution" was just about canceling a flawed election and doing it over, properly. "It wasn't a revolution at all, in the literal meaning of the word," says Denis Makarov, a medical student at Kiev's Shevchenko University. "Society just had an allergic reaction to fraud. I hope it's been cured now."