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Ukraine: 'Orange' Revolution Leader Yushchenko Does Not Fit Typical Models

Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko has become famous around the world, but few outside the country know much about him. Who is the leader of the "orange" revolution, where did he come from, and what makes him such a powerful force? (Click here --> /featuresarticle/2004/12/231d722f-817e-4a69-8901-a9177deb8272.html to see "Factbox" on Viktor Yushchenko.)

Prague, 3 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- There are few leaders in the world capable of drawing hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets, day after day, for the cause of democracy. Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko is one of them.

What inspires such devotion among his followers?

According to Kataryna Wolczuk, a Ukrainian affairs specialist at Britain's University of Birmingham, Yushchenko is neither a latter-day Vaclav Havel -- since he lacks communist-era dissident credentials -- nor an apparatchik-turned-populist, and thus does not fit the typical model for an Eastern European leader.

"He's basically a banker who entered politics rather reluctantly, and he's certainly not the type of popular leader we've seen who fronted other revolutions across the former communist states," Wolczuk said.

So, what is the secret to Yushchenko's appeal?

First, a quick biographical sketch. Yushchenko was born in a village in northern Ukraine, on 23 February 1954. Both his parents were teachers. After graduating from the Ternopil Financial Economic Institute in 1975, Yushchenko started his career as an accountant at a collective farm. A year later, he went to work for a regional branch of the USSR State Bank, in his home region. He was later promoted to the bank's Kyiv branch, and over the next decade and a half held several senior banking posts.

In 1993, after Ukrainian independence, he became head of the newly formed National Bank of Ukraine. Yushchenko steered the introduction of the national currency, the hryvna, in 1997 -- widely seen as an economic success. In December 1999, Yushchenko was appointed prime minister by President Leonid Kuchma, with strong backing from the International Monetary Fund and other Western institutions.

Yushchenko's government was toppled by a no-confidence motion in April 2001, after which he founded the Our Ukraine coalition, becoming the leader of the opposition.

Wolczuk credits Yushchenko's brief tenure in government for his broad popular support. In a little more than a year, he performed a minor miracle, reversing the country's decade-long economic slide, while beginning a campaign to clean up entrenched corruption.

"Perhaps the most important achievement of Yushchenko's government was the fact that he cleared a backlog of wages. So, people for the first time in several years were paid on time, and they really associate Yushchenko with the turnaround of the Ukrainian economy and positive changes which affected them personally," Wolczuk said.
Yushchenko's sudden illness during the campaign in September, which he said was caused by a government attempt to poison him, was a watershed moment.

RFE/RL's Ukraine and Belarus analyst, Jan Maksymiuk, agrees. He said that Yushchenko -- both during his time at the head of the National Bank and as prime minister -- showed Ukrainians that Western models of government can work in the country. Yushchenko became the leader of the opposition because people believed his rhetoric. He is seen as a man who has proven his competence, not just an ability to shout out slogans.

"Yushchenko was the first prime minister who proved that a market economy and a democratic government can work in Ukraine," Maksymiuk said. "That they can work politically, and they can work economically -- meaning a market economy and a democratic government can improve the livelihood of ordinary Ukrainians."

The widely held perception that Yushchenko's government fell because it threatened the vested interests of Ukraine's newly rich oligarchs and regional clans solidified his reputation as one of the country's few clean politicians.

Still, until this year's electoral campaign, Yushchenko was seen as much more of a moderate than many of his associates, such as former Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko. Yushchenko's strength is economics, not nationalism, and that is what most people seem to care about in today's Ukraine.

Paradoxically, the government's perceived efforts to divide the electorate on nationalist grounds and smear Yushchenko as a Western -- even CIA -- stooge radicalized Yushchenko, building the momentum for the popular uprising that has gripped the country.

Yushchenko's sudden illness during the campaign in September, which he said was caused by a government attempt to poison him, was a watershed moment, according to Wolczuk.

"Until early this year, he was really a moderate," Wolczuk said. "He's a moderate. He's not a radical. He's really been pushed perhaps towards a more radical position and especially the key event which seemed to be tipping point was his illness in September. That really seemed to galvanize and radicalize his agenda, and he started to use much stronger anti-regime language, branding the ruling elites as 'bandits,' for example."

Yushchenko's symptoms have baffled doctors -- his face is now disfigured by lumps and lesions -- with several Western specialists now theorizing that he could be suffering from exposure to a chlorine-related toxin, such as dioxin. In the popular psyche, Yushchenko's physical transformation over the past two months has only confirmed his supporters' contempt for the government and elevated their leader to near martyrdom.

"He certainly evokes sympathy. And in almost a physical sense, he manifests what is wrong with Ukraine," Wolczuk said. "If the current elites could resort to poisoning, as Yushchenko has claimed, this really shows their moral degradation, their moral corruption. And from that point of view, turning Yushchenko from quite a handsome man into someone who looks 20 years older, with distorted facial features, almost visually represents what's wrong with Ukraine."

Despite the oft-repeated statement that Ukraine is a country geographically divided in two, election results from central and northeastern region show Yushchenko's appeal was national, not just regional, according to Maksymiuk.

"This presidential election shows that he was the first pro-Western politician who crossed the Dniepr River, and regions not only on the right bank [to the West] supported him, but also on the left bank [to the East]," Maksymiuk said.

It remains unclear how the political standoff will play itself out in Ukraine. If Yushchenko fails in his bid for the presidency, he can always return to making honey. According to his personal Internet page, the man who would be Ukraine's new president is an avid beekeeper.

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