KIEV, Ukraine—A year after Ukraine's Orange Revolution captured the world's attention and lifted the hopes of this nation, growing numbers of supporters, observers and critics are concerned the country is drifting toward failure.
Campaigning opened last week for March parliamentary elections, which will determine who runs the country. But polls show the party of President Viktor Yushchenko, who galvanized demonstrators in the street to defeat the remnants of Soviet autocracy last year, is seen as only the third most popular option. The party of the man he deposed, Viktor Yanukovych, is in the lead.
That's a far cry from last year, when the Orange Revolution was portrayed as the start of a democratic revolution that would sweep through much of the former Soviet Union and beyond. It was a dramatic intrigue that pitted Yushchenko, mysteriously poisoned by a near-fatal dose of dioxin, against a Soviet-inspired system that murdered opponents and enriched its followers through fraud.
So powerful were the televised images of Ukrainians braving freezing temperatures to demand free and fair elections that demonstrators in Lebanon months later cited them as inspiration for the anti-Syria outpouring that followed the assassination of a former prime minister.
But that seems long ago. Gone are the days when every taxi featured an orange ribbon, women bought orange ball gowns and everyone wore at least an orange button. Increasingly, people voice doubt that the man who led the revolution can lead Ukraine into a new era of freedom and prosperity.
"Turns out it wasn't a revolution after all," said Yevgen Zakharov, co-chair of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group who last year was among those who camped out for days to demand a new vote after Yushchenko lost the presidential runoff. The protests ended when the Ukrainian Supreme Court, citing fraud, ordered a new vote a year ago Saturday.
"All the same people are still in power," he said, standing not far from Independence Square, the scene of those protests. "It's just that those who were first in line before are now second in line, and those who were second in line are now first. But all the same names are at the front of the line."
A host of troubles besets Yushchenko. The economy, which was growing at a rate of 6.5 percent last year, contracted 1.6 percent this year. His political coalition has suffered from internal strife. He fired his prime minister, who'd been one of his closest advisers, then pardoned officials accused of involvement in last year's vote fraud, alienating supporters. Prices of basic foodstuffs have skyrocketed.
Yushchenko defends himself, saying 12 months isn't enough time to set a new course for one of Europe's most populous countries. He told a crowd at a recent rally to mark the anniversary of the Orange Revolution that he'd created 800,000 new jobs, cut mandatory military service to one year and pulled Ukrainian soldiers from Iraq (the last are expected back before the new year). The European Union last week recognized Ukraine as a market economy, which is expected to increase trade.
"Let's not cover Ukraine's head in ashes just because, after only 12 months, some are disappointed," he said.
But the disappointment is so deep that recent polls show that Yushchenko's Nasha Ukrainya party is running third, with just 17 percent of Ukrainians' support—behind the 20 percent favoring Yanukovych's Party of Regions, and the 17.7 percent who favor the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, named for the prime minister Yushchenko fired this autumn.
Without doubt, Yushchenko has found it difficult to meet everyone's expectations.
What happened to the price of meat is a good example. Yushchenko's team increased pensions after retirees complained they could no longer afford meat. At the same time, however, he shut down the black market meat import business, fulfilling a pledge to fight corruption. The result? Demand from pensioners for meat grew, while supply decreased. Prices doubled, leaving pensioners again complaining that they couldn't afford meat and making matters worse for millions more Ukrainians.
Ihor Kohut, chairman of the Ukrainian Agency for Legislative Initiatives and who advised the president on policy, blames Yushchenko's problems in part on lack of planning.
"Even where they've been successful, the change is the work of individuals, but it's not systematic," he said. "They still have grand goals, but there is an enormous gap between expectations, accomplishments and actual policy."
Yevgen Zolotaryov, deputy head of the Pora (high times) Party, which was founded last year to support Yushchenko, said he can't see his party backing the president again.
"Yushchenko's team didn't have a strategic plan for the last year, and they don't seem to have one for the coming year," he said. "They say, `We'll fight corruption' or `We'll create 5 million jobs,' but they don't have a plan on how to do it."
Yushchenko's effort to undo the corrupt sales of state-owned businesses to cronies of longtime President Leonid Kuchma was also disastrous.
The government's plan was to take back businesses it believed had been purchased through bribes or rigged bidding, then resell them legitimately. On its face, the plan seemed to work. For example, Kyvorizhstal, a steelworks in eastern Ukraine, fetched only $850 million in 2004, when it was bought by Kuchma's son-in-law in what was widely seen as a rigged auction. Yushchenko's government sold it again to a Dutch steel company for $4.8 billion.
But the program so unsettled the business climate that investment slowed.
"Overall, very little was accomplished, so this new power lost the moral high ground they'd been awarded when they came to power," said Andrey Yermolaev, head of the Sophia Center for Social Studies. "Once they were in office, they acted as if the revolution was over, but it was just beginning."
Volodymyr Boyko, one of Ukraine's leading investigative reporters, said Ukrainians have another way of measuring Yushchenko's failures—the increase in the cost of bribes to government officials for such things as licensing a car.
"We call it the honesty surcharge," he said. "What may have cost 100 last year costs 200 this year." Then, lapsing into sarcasm, he laughed. "So, as you can see, change is good."
Others see the likelihood of compromise when the March elections are held.
Taras Chornovil, a member of Parliament who headed Yanukovych's third campaign last December, said he thinks it's possible that Yanukovych will become prime minister while Yushchenko remains president. The parliamentary elections matter because in January new laws decrease the powers of the presidency, splitting control with the prime minister's office.
"Four months from now it will be clear," Chornovil said. "Yanukovych will be the new prime minister. It could be a good team. Yushchenko is an idealist, but Yanukovych knows how to run a country."
WHAT HAPPENED IN UKRAINE
The rise of Viktor Yushchenko to Ukraine's presidency capped months of unrest. Here are some key events.
Oct. 31, 2004—Neither Viktor Yushchenko nor Viktor Yanukovych win a majority in a multi-candidate election and must face one another in a runoff.
Nov. 21—Runoff takes place.
Nov. 22—Yanukovych declared the winner. Thousands of Yushchenko supporters take control of the center of Kiev, vowing to remain until the nation was allowed a fair vote. The Orange Revolution (named for the color associated with his political party) begins.
Dec. 3—The Ukrainian Supreme Court—acknowledging fraud—tosses out the second-round votes and orders a third election.
Dec. 11—Austrian doctors announced that the scarring on Yushchenko's face—which had appeared in September—was the result of intentional dioxin poisoning. The investigation of the source continues.
Dec. 26: The third vote.
Jan. 11, 2005: The electoral commission declares Yushchenko the winner with 52 percent to 44 percent for Yanukovych.
Jan. 23: Yushchenko sworn into office.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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