Features

Orange crush

"Orange crush" Continued...

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2004," Dec. 11, 2004

Such hope for change has long been incubating. After decades of Russian control, Ukraine established its independence in 1917, but soon fell under Soviet rule again. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine reemerged as a nation.

Leonid Kuchma became president three years later, serving two terms. But his administration could not shake its Soviet legacy, dogged by cronyism and corruption. Living standards declined steadily until four years ago, and income-per-head is still only $970 a year. Mr. Kuchma himself has been plagued by his apparent complicity in the 2000 death of an investigative journalist, Georgiy Gongadze. Audiotapes of the leader secretly made by his bodyguard suggested he wanted his security services to dispose of the journalist.

His would-be successors pit continuity against change. Mr. Yanukovych is an imposing 6-foot-6-inch Easterner and engineer, who speaks Russian and hails from a poor background. In the '60s he had two criminal convictions for violent crimes that were later overturned, and has a reputation for colorful language. During the election campaign he referred to his opponents as "those bastards who are preventing us from living properly." He is popular among miners of the East, the center of industrialization in Soviet times, who have seen their incomes increase under the recently deposed prime minister.

Russian president Vladimir Putin also threw his state backing behind Mr. Yanukovych, meddling blatantly in the Ukrainian political process. Twice he visited the country to support Mr. Yanukovych during the election campaign. Twice Mr. Putin congratulated him on his victory, even before all the votes were counted and while fraud allegations mounted. The Russian leader has his own plans to reconstitute Ukraine as part of a post-Soviet Russian sphere of influence.

By contrast, the West favors Mr. Yushchenko, a trained accountant and former prime minister himself. During his two-year tenure, he introduced a strong new Ukrainian currency and began attacking corruption. His popular campaign was up against the state-influenced media machinery. But just weeks before the election he suffered what his team claims was an attempted poisoning, which transformed him from a dashing, black-haired politician to a graying, craggy-faced fighter.

Regardless of Ukraine's final winner, the protesters may have set off a chain reaction toward greater freedom and democracy. "I'm convinced that this is a very historical time that we're going through," Mr. Bespalov said. "To see such a demonstration of people in the street and nobody oppressing it gives me hope that democracy is winning in Ukraine." Mr. Basarab agrees: More evident than the grab bag of orange items people wore was their "orange spirit"-a newfound longing for democracy.

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