Andrew Osborn








The end of the revolution

16th January 2010 16:22

Five years ago, Kiev’s giant Independence Square was a sea of people, tents and banners as Ukrainians threw off more than a decade of Soviet-style authoritarianism in the Orange Revolution. Supporters claimed they were the largest spontaneous mass protests in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Today, the same square is practically empty. Three or four tiny campaign tents pitched in the square’s corner are the sole sign of political activity. Otherwise, the only people hurrying across the snow-lashed square are shoppers.

As Ukrainians go to the polls today to elect a new president, the hopes and dreams ushered in by the Orange Revolution have given way to profound disillusionment and apathy. Fuelled by a combination of largely domestic factors, the Orange Revolution set Ukraine firmly on a Westwards course and its leaders spoke excitedly of EU and NATO membership. But they did little but bicker among themselves in the next five years squandering what critics say was a historic chance for change.

The result: Today Ukraine is again looking east towards its old colonial master: Moscow.   

The man Vladimir Putin hoped would become Ukraine’s president five years ago is set to win round one of today’s presidential election, sealing Ukraine’s return to Russia’s orbit after a failed flirtation with the West.

By contrast, Viktor Yushchenko, the current president and main beneficiary of the Orange Revolution, is fighting to avoid slipping into political oblivion. Pollsters put his ratings in single digits and he is expected to place an ego-crushing fourth or fifth. His one-time ally turned bitter foe Yulia Tymoshenko is forecast to do better. In fact, she is the only person experts believe might conceivably derail Mr Yanukovych’s startling comeback though she too will be easily beaten by Mr Yanukovych in the first round of voting. The moment of truth will come next month on February 7 when Yanukovych and Tymoshenko are expected to face off against one another in the second and final round of voting.   

Yanukovych’s support is rooted in the largely Russian-speaking east of the country. His supporters came out in force during a recent rally in Kiev. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Kremlin’s Nashi young activists, they wore cheap anoraks emblazoned with the slogan “Yanukovych is our president” and bore thin-stemmed blue flags. Many of them swigged beer and appeared to be drunk as they jigged about in freezing temperatures to a morale-boosting tinny pop concert. Few of them came from Kiev where Yanukovych’s support is thin and had been bussed in especially for the occasion. As the cold bit, the mood felt forced and not a little aggressive. Many of the supporters were elderly women – representatives of a Soviet generation that feels betrayed by modern Ukraine and the poverty it thrust them into.     

Ordinary people say they are struggling to muster the enthusiasm to even vote. “What’s the point?” says Volodimyr, a taxi driver. “We have had so many elections and nothing has changed. The same old faces just swap places.”

The geopolitical stakes are high.

Yanukovych’s comeback from the political dead risks seeing the Kremlin reassert its influence over a strategically vital country sandwiched between Russia and the EU whose pipeline network carries Siberian gas to Western Europe.

Analysts say it would mean one of the few pro-Western countries in the former Soviet Union downgrading its dreams of Euro-Atlantic integration. It would also kill off any hopes that Ukraine might join NATO soon and would increase the chances that Russia will be allowed to keep its Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea on a permanent basis. A country the size of France with a population of 47 million people, critics say Ukraine’s future between East and West hangs in the balance. 

“Russia wants to define its own terms of a regional paradigm,” says deputy prime minister Hryorii Nemyria, an ally of Tymoshenko. “Ukraine’s choice will be decisive for the trajectory of smaller countries in the region.”

President Yushchenko accuses both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko of being part of what he calls “the Moscow project,” arguing that Ukraine is perilously close to making a dangerous lurch to the east.   

Observers say the charismatic Tymoshenko, the current prime minister, has become much friendlier towards the Kremlin in recent months and would be someone Moscow could do business with.  She says she only wants pragmatic relations with a country Ukraine can’t ignore. But whoever wins, relations with Russia are set to be rebooted, placing Ukraine firmly back in Russia’s sphere of influence, analysts say.

“For the first time since independence (from the Soviet Union) both leading candidates are positioning themselves as champions of better ties with the Kremlin,” says Peter Dickinson, publisher of Business Ukraine magazine. 

“Few politicians will welcome the improving bilateral climate more than Mr Putin himself who for a period must have feared that his historical legacy would be forever tarnished by the stigma of being the man who lost Ukraine.”

Yanukovych’s comeback marks a remarkable return for the biggest loser of the Orange Revolution when a court stripped him of what it said was a fraudulent victory. At the time, his political career appeared to be over. 

But the former mechanic who spent time in prison when he was younger has reinvented himself.

Although he casts himself as the defender of Ukraine’s national interests, his policies are distinctly Kremlin-friendly. He has indicated he might recognise Georgia’s two breakaway pro-Russian statelets and said he would sign up to a Russian-engineered economic cooperation agreement between former Soviet republics. He has also made it clear he would allow Russia to get involved in the management of Ukraine’s gas transit network and has cultivated close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet which is currently due to close in 2017 might also get a second lease of life. Mr Yanukovych has said he wants a solution to the base issue that would not harm Russia’s interests.

“His policies play well with part of the electorate,” says Mr Nemyria. “His core support is in the east and the south. There is a widespread nostalgia there for the Soviet Union.”