Disillusionment in Ukraine: The Sad End of the Orange Revolution

By Christian Neef and

Ukraine is about to hold its first presidential elections since the popular uprising in 2004 that overturned a fraudulent vote. But what has become of the Orange Revolution, now that its leaders have fallen from grace and the population is craving a strong leader?

It seems hard to believe that a normal person who claims to "hardly ever go to bed before 4 a.m. these days" could look so good. Her cheeks are glowing, her skin is smooth, her trademark braids are carefully arranged on top of her head and her step is as energetic as ever.

But what exactly is normal about this woman, the prime minister of Europe's largest country by area? On this morning, Yulia Tymoshenko looks fresh and awake, wearing a light-brown wool dress and looking the part of the concerned leader of her nation. All that's missing are the sheaves of grain Tymoshenko is holding to her chest on the campaign posters displayed outside, along Kiev's streets.

Photo Gallery

5  Photos
Photo Gallery: Orange Crushed

The venue was probably chosen carefully to ensure just the right backdrop for the candidate. The washed-out white marble and bronze chandeliers in this retirement home for government officials exude the faded charm of the Soviet era. Tymoshenko -- popularly known by her first name, Yulia -- is a study in political contrasts, even before she opens her mouth to give a campaign speech.

"I am one of you," she calls out to the 300 students sitting in the conference room. "I will make sure that you get discounted tickets for the bus and subway! And when I am president, you will be allowed to choose the minister of youth and sports."

Tymoshenko is a gifted speaker, promising a glowing future to the poor and underprivileged, and everything short of saving the planet to everyone else. "We Ukrainians," she says in her clear, youthful voice, "will not just solve our own problems, but will also offer the entire world a model for overcoming the crisis -- that is our mission." She neglects to mention how, exactly, her country will serve as an economic role model.

Icon of Revolution

Ukraine will elect its new president on Jan. 17, for the first time since the Orange Revolution. For a long time, it had seemed as if the presidency were already reserved for Tymoshenko, the icon of the country's magnificent popular revolt of December 2004.

The images the world witnessed coming from Kiev five years ago are hard to forget. The smoke from burning firewood hanging over Khreshchatyk Street, the city's main boulevard, where tens of thousands protested for weeks against fraud in the November election. The parades of honking cars in the city's narrow, twisted downtown streets. The hoarse voices of supporters calling out the names "Yushchenko" and "Yulia" on Independence Square as the opposition leaders, wearing orange scarves, finally claimed victory over the pro-Moscow incumbents after a third round of voting.

The images were reminiscent of Prague in 1968, Gdansk in 1980 and Leipzig in 1989. Russia, which had never overcome the loss of Ukraine, a country of 46 million people, was in shock. Europe, on the other hand, was filled with optimism.

Deeply Divided

Five years later, Ukraine is almost a forgotten country. The victors of that 2004 election, once feted on Independence Square, are now deeply divided, and the country's political institutions are paralyzed. The government has lacked a majority in the parliament for a year, the posts of finance and defense minister are vacant, and even the Foreign Ministry was leaderless for several months. The country itself is broke, only managing to stay afloat with loans from the West.

And the color orange? It isn't even being used in the current election campaign. The Tymoshenko campaign's white tents decorated with a red heart can be seen on the streets. There are blue tents where volunteers are collecting signatures for former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the man who almost became president as a result of the rigged 2004 election. Finally, current President Viktor Yushchenko is campaigning with brightly colored billboards advertising the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, which Ukraine is co-hosting along with Poland.

Nothing illustrates the stalemate in Ukrainian politics as effectively as the struggle among these three figures. For years, they have formed a seemingly eternal triangle of power, which Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych calls the "anti-Pantheon of the modern era."

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