Ukraine's Orange Revolution Continues

WHAT'S AN UPRISING these days without a mega pop star? In Kiev's wired world of the Orange Revolution, there's Ukraine's darling - Ruslana, the one-named singing sensation who won the 2004 Euro Idol competition.

Ukraine's Orange Revolution Continues

WHAT'S AN UPRISING these days without a mega pop star? In Kiev's wired world of the Orange Revolution, there's Ukraine's darling - Ruslana, the one-named singing sensation who won the 2004 Euro Idol competition. Ruslana, her country's first platinum-record performer, has cleverly found her way into her compatriots' hearts. She's appeared onstage with opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, and dropped in on Tent City, the student squatters' camp in the middle of Khreshchatyk Street in the downtown core. Last week, in front of a blockaded government building, she rallied a chanting crowd that demanded real democracy for Ukraine.

The grey structure itself, which houses the cabinet of government ministers, is in the grand Soviet style, an imposing monolith less suited to democracy than to, say, intimidating peasants. Ruslana - decked out in orange sweater, gloves and combat boots - stood halfway up a steep and muddy incline, across the street from the ministers' offices. On the ridge above and behind her, some 20 young revolutionary neophytes pounded old oil drums, creating a deafening, on-the-warpath-like din that reverberated off the building's looming facade. Bullhorn in hand, long raven hair whipped by the wind, Ruslana had the crowd in the street below pumping fists in unison and flashing victory signs. "We must raise our hands and yell so loud," she roared, "that all of Europe will hear."

Ruslana was what the Orange Revolution and the momentarily sagging Yushchenko forces needed. That, and a crucial parliamentary compromise. Rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of orange-clad protesters had thinned out by early last week. That was to be expected, given the political lull, exhaustion, and a miserable drizzle. But then, in mid-week, an overwhelming majority of the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, passed legislation to curtail electoral fraud, and also curb the sweeping powers the president currently wields. Some Yushchenko supporters grumbled over the trade-off. Still, the deal breathed new life into many tired demonstrators. And, more importantly, it resolved a tense political standoff between Yushchenko, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, and his hand-picked, now largely disgraced candidate for the disputed presidency, Viktor Yanukovich.

The Rada agreement dissolved the problem-plagued Central Electoral Commission. While parliamentarians immediately re-elected 11 of the commission's 15 representatives, four bad apples were tossed out. Tight controls on absentee ballots will be instituted, a key Yushchenko demand. But it came at a price. Yushchenko was forced to agree to limits on the president's office. Once elected on Dec. 26 - he is widely expected to defeat Yanukovich, if the vote is not flawed - he will have between nine and 12 months of largely unfettered power, depending on when the Rada passes related legislation. One way or another, though, the presidential reforms are scheduled to kick in no later than Jan. 1, 2006, in time for new parliamentary elections. That is a stiff price, given the upheaval Ukraine has endured since the widespread fraud of the Nov. 21 presidential runoff and Yushchenko's great personal sacrifice (on top of feverish campaigning, he also survived a suspected poisoning). "That's maybe one of the opposition's biggest defeats," said Rostyslav Pavlenko, a professor of constitutional law and Ukrainian politics at the University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy.

On the plus side, Pavlenko suspects voters are willing to grant Yushchenko an extended honeymoon. Still, Ukrainians expect a lot, given the widespread indignation over the Kuchma regime's culture of corruption. Take Anna Lukanina, a law student at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kiev. Authorities at the school, she says, told students they could be expelled if they sided with the pro-western Yushchenko. "We're the No. 1 university - and they threatened us for our ideas," said Lukanina. "Can you imagine that?" Old-style attitudes like that are among the reasons Olesya Oleshko, 25, writes for a news website maintained by the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a non-governmental organization. "I build democracy," Oleshko said matter-of-factly. "We tell people the truth - that's how I see my job."

Ukrainians aren't only thirsting for the truth, they crave the opportunity to tell their own stories to an increasingly liberalized media. Radio Kiev set up a tent outside the mayor's office, in front of Tent City. There, journalist Victoria Popadyuk, 22, stood holding a microphone plugged into a Sony Discman recorder for two to three hours at a time as people vented. (Popadyuk was decked out in a bright orange coat trimmed with an orange fur collar - in the transition from East Bloc nation to open democracy, journalistic impartiality is occasionally a necessary casualty.) Twice an hour, the station broadcast one-minute clips of the interviews. Things got heated, and crowded. "These people want to be heard," said Popadyuk. "Some speak for 15 to 30 minutes. It's hard to stop them sometimes."

What success this peaceful revolution has had so far is in measure due to people like Vasyl Boychuk, the 38-year-old "commandant" of a student camp hunkered down in a park next to the Rada. Boychuk belongs to Pora, the student organization that established his camp and Tent City (Pora means "it's time"). He looks older than he is. His command post is a military MASH-style tent, one of seven larger ones surrounded by 17 four-man tents. About 80 people continue to live in the camp. There are guards, many of them no more than kids. Park benches form a patrolled perimeter that surrounds the enclave.

At 1:30 a.m. one night early last week, Boychuk was still a couple of hours from bedding down. An electric light bulb burned faintly inside his tent, powered by a five-kilowatt generator outside. He ate at a folding table that also served as his operations hub. Food, fuel, medical care, guard duty - all had to be planned. Among the items within reach were a bottle of water, rye bread heaped with thick slices of greasy salami and fatty cheese, and a heavy-duty flashlight. Boychuk, who smokes too much and is usually over-caffeinated, looked exhausted. He coughed a lot and was hoarse. And also stressed out: the risk of violence, while substantially diminished, is never zero (a nearby tent contained makeshift riot shields made of three-quarter-inch plywood, each plastered with a Yushchenko campaign poster). "I want to live in this country, and as a father of two young twins, I want them to have a future," Boychuk said. "But anything can happen - how can I guarantee my own safety? If they decide to use force, then the first people they'll attack are the leaders."

Pora's office is in a considerably more comfortable place: a private wing of an upscale brew pub overlooking Tent City. The owner, a Yushchenko supporter, loaned the organization the space. There, spokeswoman Nina Sorokopud told me the Rada camp will remain intact until at least the Dec. 26 election. Tent City on Khreshchatyk is being scaled back to about one-fifth of its size, but will continue to block much of the eight-lane thoroughfare, with an estimated 2,500 residents expected to remain.

Sorokopud said Pora now plans to send envoys to Yanukovich strongholds, such as the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, to spread information. In each of the targeted places, Pora has lawyers ready to help any members who run into trouble. "In the past, we've had a lot of problems with police arrests and interrogations," said Sorokopud. "People have also lost their jobs, and they've been thrown out of school."

Those regions are largely Russian-speaking, with some pro-Moscow sympathies. But in Kiev and the surrounding areas, there is anger - against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his interference in the election. In Bila Tserkva, Ludmila Verhelez, 58, a one-time Putin sympathizer, waved her hands emphatically when asked what she thinks of him now. "I used to respect Putin, until this," said Verhelez, sporting a neat orange bow on her lapel. "He blatantly got mixed up in our presidential election. I can't even look at him now." Yaroslaw Dziadko, an 18-year-old violin student wearing a yellow Pora bandana around his neck, said Putin should butt out. "We are an independent country," said Dziadko, "and should be allowed to manage our own affairs without someone else's meddling." It's a common sentiment, and one shared by Mykola Tarasiuk, 45, a mason with a thick handlebar moustache. "Putin made a mess of Chechnya and he wanted to do the same with Ukraine," Tarasiuk scoffed. "We can take care of our own affairs - we don't need his help."

According to Pavlenko at the Mohyla Academy, Yushchenko, if elected, must focus on four priorities: building a coalition government; replacing all 27 regional governors, most of whom are Kuchma appointees; tackling inflation and the country's debt-payment crisis; and waging war on corruption. If Yushchenko fails to make appreciable gains on these four fronts, the feel-good, orange-tinged love-in he currently benefits from could easily evaporate. "If there are no signs of improvement by 2006," says Pavlenko, "disillusionment is quite possible."

But first things first. Holding an election around Christmastime does not immediately bode well. Many expatriate Ukrainians who were acting as election observers are heading home to spend the holidays with their families. Those still in Ukraine, though, are trying to rally the troops. American Ani Nemickas and his Canadian wife, Lenna Koszarny, last week held their third organizational meeting to get as many observers out as possible. About 20 supporters showed up in the large, finely renovated apartment the couple owns in Kiev, most either Canadian or American, but with a German and a Dutch expat also present. The worry this time around isn't so much ballot-box stuffing as it is ballot destroying. The Nov. 21 vote already had instances of matches dropped into ballot boxes or acid being poured in. It could easily happen again. "We want active observers willing to go where they're needed," said Koszarny, "and who don't think of this as either political or historical tourism."

In the early days of this political coming of age, Ukrainians didn't know which way things would go. Would the police and military attack their own? Would Putin send in his thugs? Even as the nervousness dissipated, the residents in the urban tent cities remained ready to defend themselves. Back in his compound, Boychuk told a visitor: "There's a phrase in Ukrainian - we must fight, and we must be victorious." There's no final victory just yet, but there's still a lot of fire left in the Orange Revolution.

Maclean's December 20, 2004