Peeling back the Orange Revolution
April 10, 2007
VIDEO: Ukraine standoff
With foresight, I could have guessed at the weakness of Viktor Yushchenko, leader of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, when I met him for an interview in the midst of the historic people-power events in the winter of 2004-05.
His face, of course, bore the terrible scars of dioxin poisoning. A Western ambassador would tell me later that Yushchenko was only able to stand on his feet because of powerful drugs provided by American doctors, trying to keep him alive.
But his weakness wasn't just physical. Yushchenko's frailty was his gentleness. He asked me and some other Canadian reporters, much to our surprise, if we wanted tea.
Here was a man poised for greatness and about to change the history of his country. He was on the verge, at last, of being able to destroy Ukraine's post-Soviet "virtual politics," with its phony parties controlled by big business, its massive bribe taking and corruption and character assassination, all of it hidden by a media too fearful to do its job.
And here, the former central banker Yushchenko, who was receiving hundreds of interview requests, actually found the time for courtesy and small talk. He asked not only if we wanted tea, but also how we all were doing standing there for long hours every day on Kiev's freezing Independence Square, with up to one million Orange revolutionaries.
It was plain to see right then that Yushchenko was a decent man, someone who takes the time before getting down to business, and who has little instinct for the jugular.
A gentleman, you might say. Ukraine's Hamlet.
The unravelling of the orange
And that's why his revolution, cheered on by a million Canadians of Ukrainian extraction, has run into such trouble.
The initial story was almost a fairy tale. During the 2004 presidential vote, it was alleged that Kremlin-supported strongman Viktor Yanukovich was trying to steal the presidency by stuffing ballot boxes and sundry other dirty tricks. Western observers denounced the widespread fraud, and Yushchenko's supporters, clad in orange, took to the streets of the capital, Kiev, calling for a new vote.
The Supreme Court agreed with them, and Yushchenko won the new ballot. That's when things got weird.
Nice-guy Yuschenko came down with a case of what a Kiev analyst calls "Gorbachev syndrome." The Orange hero began to travel the globe for months at a time. He was feted in Washington and other Western capitals, met with the Queen and was held up as a model of peaceful change by other democrats in the old Soviet sphere and beyond.
But back home, it was politics as usual, which meant rotten and getting more rotten. In part that was because the two deals Yushchenko had to cut in order to come to office started to unravel.
The first was an institutional deal with other political players. In it, Yushchenko's own presidential powers were gradually curtailed in favour of the government and, therefore, parliament.
He also had to make political deal with his revolutionary allies: Thus, his first prime minister would be Yulia Tymoshenko, his firebrand female lieutenant during that wintry revolution.
A closet billionaire, Tymoshenko is nonetheless graced with real Joan of Arc appeal. She was a woman who could send 200,000 people marching on parliament with a twitch of the trademark gold braid curled tightly around her head and a couple of angry accusations yelled out from atop a moving truck.
Enter the blues
So, how did the two deals come undone over these past two years?
First, Hamlet/Yushchenko and his Joan of Arc prime minister fell out after seven months of power sharing, so he fired her. Then, after an upset parliamentary election, yesterday's "bad guy," Yanukovich, took her place.
Since the institutional set-up had changed, parliament could challenge the president if 300 of the 450 deputies agreed to veto his decisions. That's what Prime Minister Yanukovich is poised to do, after poaching several previously pro-Yushchenko deputies.
Yushchenko, faced by gridlock, irrelevance and ultimately humiliation, has decided to dissolve parliament and is calling for new elections on May 28. That's where we are now.
One may be forgiven for a sense of déjàvu, even of a revolution in reverse. These days, it is Yanukovich supporters who are camped out in Kiev (wearing blue, not orange) accusing President Yushchenko of trampling on democracy because of his early election call.
These demonstrators are much, much fewer in number than the Orange people of two years ago. They hail from the Russian-speaking industrial East, as does Yanukovich. They don't like NATO or the U.S. and are mistrustful of the West in general, often seeing the Orange Revolution as a CIA plot.
However, if the demonstrators are few in number, they also represent the thinking of about half the population of Ukraine.
So the danger of the vote in May is that it will only make more obvious the splits in the country, instead of serving to heal them. That was one of the challenges facing Yushchenko immediately after he took office, and it is obvious he has failed to deal with it.
In hindsight, Yushchenko took too long to go for the jugular and gave his enemies too much time to organize. Optimists in Ukraine say at least the Orange Revolution gave birth to the idea of people-power, and that whatever Yushchenko's fate, voters won't let their leaders do just any old thing in their name any more, because they see themselves as citizens for once.
Pessimists say the revolution, as emotional and beautiful as it was for many, never really happened at all, that it was about as substantial as Hamlet's father floating above Elsinore castle. A ghost.