Ukrainians Protest Against Fraudulent Election

It was like old times - a Russian leader warning the West to stay out of his country's sphere of influence, an American president vowing that the will of the people must be heard. As the dispute over the Nov.

Ukrainians Protest Against Fraudulent Election

It was like old times - a Russian leader warning the West to stay out of his country's sphere of influence, an American president vowing that the will of the people must be heard. As the dispute over the Nov. 21 Ukrainian presidential runoff vote continued, and as opposition supporters took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, George W. Bush promised that the United States would closely monitor any new balloting. But Vladimir Putin said hands off, even as he waded deep into the issue by rejecting the notion of a repeat runoff - an idea supported by opposition leader and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko and European Union mediators. Putin said such a vote could produce another disputed result, prolonging the standoff between Yushchenko's movement and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's handpicked candidate and the man openly supported by Putin.

That the balloting was fraudulent was not in doubt: at week's end, Ukraine's supreme court, confirming allegations by western election observers, nullified the Nov. 21 result. But the court also issued an implicit challenge to Putin, ordering that a runoff be held again by Dec. 26. It may not be the Cold War but there's definitely a chill in the air, and it's more than just the weather Maclean's Senior Writer Danylo Hawaleshka experienced when he spent time with Yushchenko's supporters in Kiev last week. His report on the Orange Revolution:

IT'S COLD AND DAMP - only just below freezing, but the kind of weather that chills to the core. Vyacheslav Zinkevich has slept outdoors for 11 uncomfortable days, but he's not budging. For almost two tumultuous weeks, the 35-year-old border guard has made his home in Kiev's Tent City, a chaotic hodgepodge of some 2,000, crammed-together makeshift shelters that provide housing for, by one count, as many as 15,000 Slavic souls. With six to eight to a tent, the highly motivated squatters are forced to sleep in shifts, but remain unwavering in an inspiring act of peaceful but raucous civic disobedience. The camp, together with Independence Square only steps away, has become Ukraine's emotional epicentre for change.

Tent City sprang up in the heart of downtown Kiev in the immediate aftermath of the country's profoundly flawed runoff presidential election on Nov. 21. It's hunkered down on a roughly 500-m stretch of Khreshchatyk Street, ordinarily a busy eight-lane thoroughfare. Seated in a white plastic lawn chair, Zinkevich looks up from the well-stoked, smoky fire, burning in an old oil drum, that he shares for warmth with several other protesters. His face is smeared black with soot, but the food, says Zinkevich, is "first class, three times a day." He gets four hours of sleep a night, maybe, and hasn't been on the job since all this started. "You can't think about your work," says Zinkevich, "when the future of your country is being decided."

At this time of year, Ukrainians with any good sense might ordinarily be cozying up to a hearty dish of brazed pork smothered in sautéed onions, with a side of pickled mushrooms. Or they could be tucked under a fluffy down comforter, bellies full. But these are heady times, with what seems like all of Kiev marching in the streets. Starting at about 8 each morning, wave after wave of flag-waving, chanting demonstrators mass in Independence Square, known here simply as the maidan, the Ukrainian word for square. The crowd swells to a peak of hundreds of thousands by 8 p.m., swarming the stage that's been set up here, with more stages being added around the city each day.

The people who make up this multimedia uprising, complete with laser light shows, take it all in via giant outdoor screens that carry broadcasts of the parliamentary debates, supreme court hearings and the politicians and musicians who take to the stage to rally spirits. Tent City is plugged in. "They're trying to divide us into east and west," Mykhaylo Tomenko, a vocal member of parliament, tells the crowd. "Don't let them do it." There are kids here, and university students, and kerchiefed babushkas with gold-plated teeth. Together, this teeming mass of humanity chants, "Freedom won't be stopped. Freedom won't be stopped."

Mykhaylo Drezhpak has come down to the maidan after work. The company that employs him sells window glass. The 56-year-old labourer remembers how the maidan used to be called the Square of the October Revolution, and how an imposing statue of Lenin presided over it. Lenin's long gone. In his place towers a statue of Mother Ukraine. Back in '91 when Ukraine declared independence, says Drezhpak, Ukrainians were a passive lot. All that's changed. "I'm absolutely optimistic," Drezhpak says. "Why? Just look at all the people, look at the passion." A short distance away, warming up in one of the underground shopping malls, Dima Kharlamov, 27, says he's travelled enough of the democratic world to know what his country is missing out on. "They have so much freedom," says Kharlamov, "the kind we never had."

All across Ukraine, in fact, demonstrators have massed in cities to overturn an election they say robbed opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko of the country's presidency. In the east and south, where there are large ethnic Russian populations, sentiments tend toward the man favoured by Moscow: Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, described by opponents as a thug twice convicted as a teenager - for robbery and bodily injury. But in the streets, Yanukovich has nothing like the support Yushchenko enjoys. They're calling it the Orange Revolution, so named for Yushchenko's party colour. There's been a run on orange clothing and material - for ribbons, scarves, flags, you name it. It's one massive parade of colour, solidarity and defiance.

I came here with mixed feelings. My father was born on a farm near a tiny village in western Ukraine, nestled in the Carpathian Mountains about 150 km south of Lviv. He fled his war-torn country for a better life in Canada, where I was born. I wish he were alive to see his countrymen and women fight to be led by a pro-western leader. Their intense resolve and thundering chants have moved me close to tears several times. Just about everyone I've spoken to has said they are absolutely convinced they can ultimately defeat Yanukovich, the hand-picked successor to outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, whose decade in power has seen millions come out onto the streets in repeated protests. But what if they can't?

No one will consider failure - it's not an option. Historic moments like the Orange Revolution come along only so often, when an entire nation is inspired to rise up. It's the Berlin Wall all over again, only this time the people aren't tearing down a concrete barrier, they're trying to rip apart a "cleptocracy" that has seen scheming, well-connected politicians line their pockets by selling off national assets ever since the Soviet Union fell apart.

In Tent City, Dr. Vasyl Sichkar makes his nightly rounds, just another of the many well-organized volunteers who ensure that this impromptu urban encampment functions well. Sichkar laughs off a Yanukovich supporter's recent claim of a meningitis outbreak within Tent City. Fear-mongering, he says - there's been no worse than colds, flu, and a bit of frostbite here and there. Like many Ukrainians, Sichkar, 35, says he had no choice but to come out. "It's a call of the heart," he explains.

Other volunteers help distribute donated food, clothing and money. Bronislav Sanycki is behind a folding table, serving up jars of pickled just-about-everything. He's 72 but looks 10 years younger. The man's not even wearing gloves, but he doesn't seem to mind. "We're fighting for freedom," says Sanycki, before offering me something to eat. A little way further, Vera Marinchenko, an 18-year-old engineering student, drops off a plate of rye bread heaped with slices of kolbassa and cheese for her tent mates. Three days in, she says she's doing just fine. "There are a lot of people in the tent," says Marinchenko. "We generate a lot of heat."

One of the only Yanukovich supporters I see has little to say. Waving his candidate's flag, and trailing a half-dozen like-minded stragglers, Sergey Botenko is also on his way to the maidan. The 24-year-old is from the Crimea, a Yanukovich stronghold. "It's my choice," Botenko says. "I like this man." He has difficulty articulating much more.

You could easily call this the soundtrack revolution. The maidan rocks out every night, with Ukraine's top musicians shaking the walls of the surrounding buildings in a sort of massive Ukrainian Woodstock-cum-Quebec Carnival. Instead of body surfing on mud, there are steep hills that double as snow slides. A bunch of rappers, one wearing an orange hooded sweatshirt, gets the crowd going. The Orange Revolution even comes with an anthem. The rap number, belted out over the maidan's throbbing sound system, gets the crowd singing every time. "Together we are many," goes the chorus. "We will not be overcome." (It's catchier in Ukrainian.)

The Canadian Embassy in Kiev has warned its citizens in Ukraine that if the unrest continues, it could result in roadblocks and disrupted travel. Ambassador Andrew Robinson wants Canadians to keep cars gassed up, and money and a week's supply of food on hand, just in case. While there's been little reported violence, it's not inconceivable that things could get rough. There has already been an attack on pro-Yushchenko supporters in the city of Luhansk, a Yanukovich stronghold. A Canadian man working with a local human rights advocacy group, Sylvain Roussel, 23, was injured seriously enough to be hospitalized for a time.

Yushchenko, formerly movie-star handsome but now facially disfigured by some sort of poisoning (rumoured to be dioxin), comes off as smart, adept and loquacious. He's the former head of the National Bank of Ukraine, and also served a stint as prime minister. Yanukovich, on the other hand, has never photographed well, and when he speaks, he's wooden. Yushchenko's campaign slogan was "Tak" - simply, "Yes," and it worked well. Yanukovich's was "Tomushcho," or "Because," and was widely ridiculed. As in: because Kuchma wants it this way.

There isn't a heavy police presence in Kiev's core. The Ukrainian police and army are clearly reluctant to oppose the will of the people. One high-ranking military officer stands onstage to tell the cheering crowds, "The army is here to defend Ukraine." But at the presidential building, a menacing line of riot police, three helmeted men deep, face off with protesters. Team Orange has blockaded all access points. Up one road, Vadim Shkurin, a 38-year-old civil servant with a communication bud in one ear and bullhorn slung over his shoulder, helps coordinate the protest. He says momentum has shifted to the people. "The whole purpose is to maintain the blockade until we win," Shkurin says. "That's the only conclusion we will settle for."

He pauses to weigh the significance of the moment. "I am personally honoured to be able to defend Ukraine, her independence and the people's choice," Shkurin says. "We're taking this historic opportunity to free ourselves from this criminal regime." Shkurin breaks off our talk when someone speaks to him through his communications device. He apologizes for the abrupt end, but there's been a report of men in vans removing documents from an official building. Is the government falling?

For Lesia Ivonko, a 19-year-old education student who has taken part in demonstrations daily since the disputed election results, it's not a question of if, but when. Her head covered by an orange bandana, she tells me the end is near for the current regime. "This won't last more than a week," Ivonko says. "But if it does, we'll stay here as long as necessary." Yushchenko is always there to galvanize his supporters. For one of his nightly onstage appearances in the maidan, the atmosphere is electric. "We have to take this movement to its logical conclusion," Yushchenko tells the crowd. "For your support, I bow my head to you." Dignitaries and the crowd join in a rousing chorus of Ukraine's national anthem.

Vitaliy Gyrak, who ordinarily manages two companies in Kiev, is in Tent City, controlling who can come in. He likes what he sees of his nation at this historic moment. "We want to be part of a global family," says Gyrak. "We have children and we worry for them." On the maidan, as the national anthem nears its end, fireworks explode high above. That cascading kaleidoscope eventually fades, but the cold, damp night is still coloured orange.

UKRAINE'S TIME OF TROUBLES

1917

Ukraine declares independence after collapse of Russian empire.

1922

Incorporated into Soviet Union.

1929-1933

Joseph Stalin's collectivization campaign results in man-made famine that kills seven million Ukrainian peasants.

1937

Mass deportations and executions in Stalinist purge.

1941-1944

German forces occupy Ukraine. Millions die, including more than 500,000 Jews.

1945

Allied victory leaves Ukraine in Soviet hands, but resistance continues.

1954

After nine years, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army is defeated by the Soviets.

1986

Radioactivity spews across Europe after accident at the Chernobyl nuclear station.

1988

Rukh, the Ukrainian People's Movement for Restructuring, is established.

1991

Ukraine declares independence after abortive putsch attempt in Moscow.

1994

Leonid Kuchma becomes president.

1997

Friendship treaty with Russia signed.

1999

Kuchma appoints Viktor Yushchenko, head of the central bank, as prime minister.

2000

In early November, police discover the decapitated corpse of investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who had been looking into high-level corruption. Tapes subsequently appear, allegedly of Kuchma discussing ways to get rid of Gongadze.

2001

Yushchenko loses a non-confidence motion in April. Kuchma appoints Anatoliy Kinakh, the former deputy PM, as PM.

2002

Mass demonstrations in September against Kuchma. In November, Kuchma removes Kinakh and appoints Viktor Yanukovich as PM.

2003

Further mass demonstrations against Kuchma.

2004

In the run-up to the Oct. 31 presidential election, opposition leader Yushchenko is hit by a disfiguring illness. Yushchenko alleges that he was poisoned by the regime. Opponents say he'd eaten bad sushi.

First round of voting leads to runoff election on Nov. 21 between Yushchenko and Yanukovich. Observers report widespread fraud, but the official vote count gives victory to Yanukovich. Opposition launches street protests.

A COLOURFUL CAST

The Patriot

Viktor Yushchenko, 50, rose from village roots on the strength of his smarts and good looks, and now leads a popular uprising in Kiev's central square. Survived alleged poison plot that left him disfigured; now argues he's the rightful president of Ukraine.

The Pawn

Viktor Yanukovich, 54, was Moscow's pick to run the country, despite plodding style and rap sheet that includes robbery and assault. Connections to Ukrainian oligarchs make him odd choice, given Russia's campaign against plutocrats. What was Vladimir Putin thinking?

The Princess

Or pit bull? Yulia Tymoshenko, 44, may be pretty, but the opposition firebrand has a razor-sharp tongue. An heiress to a gas fortune, she whips up the common folk with anti-government, pro-Yushchenko rants - then smiles sweetly for the media cameras.

The Puppet

Elected to strengthen ties with Russia, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, 66, now seems to answer directly to Moscow. Conspiracy theorists think he's trying to hang on to power, maybe with Russian blessing. He did, however, try handing the reins to Yanukovich.

The Puppetmaster

Russian president just can't stop himself. After botched attempt to push Yanukovich on voters, Putin says Ukrainians have to decide by themselves. Then he jumps back in, mocking the idea of another runoff - while warning the West to stay out. Is the little guy losing his icy touch?

Maclean's December 13, 2004