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Ukraine: Why Are Ukrainians Disappointed With The Orange Revolution?

Yushchenko last year amid the Orange Revolution (AFP) Ukrainians are expected to converge on Kyiv's Independence Square (Maydan Nezalezhnosti) tomorrow (22 November) to mark the first anniversary of the Orange Revolution, which installed Viktor Yushchenko as Ukraine's president.

One year ago, tens of thousands of people came to the square to protest against what they saw as a rigged second election round in favor of Yushchenko's rival, then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Weeks of peaceful protests in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities led to a repeat runoff on 26 December, which was won by Yushchenko with 52 percent of the vote.

The Orange Revolution, which has drawn comparisons to the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in November 1989, was a time of immense social optimism and activism in Ukraine. However, one year later a majority of Ukrainians say they are disappointed with the current course of events in their country.

According to a poll taken earlier this month, more than half of Ukrainians say the new government has failed to keep the promises that were made on the square. Today just one in seven Ukrainians fully supports President Yushchenko, compared to nearly 50 percent declaring such support shortly after his inauguration in February.

What are the main reasons for this general disappointment?

First, the Yushchenko government has failed to exploit the backing it gained during the Orange Revolution to institute coherent reforms. Such a scenario could have set Ukraine on a path of irreversible transformation from the current oligarchic-capitalism system to a more market-oriented economic model. Instead, Yushchenko resorted to a populist and expensive increase in wages and pensions, apparently to keep the electorate satisfied until the 2006 parliamentary elections. After several months of relative social contentment, this move was followed by increased inflation and a rise in costs of living. At the same time, economic growth rate in Ukraine has slumped from 12 percent in 2004 to some 3 percent today. As a result, Ukrainians justifiably view their economic prospects as bleak.

Second, Yushchenko has failed to fulfill his revolutionary pledge to eradicate endemic corruption and "send all bandits to jail." True, the government has annulled more than 4,000 regulations in business registration, which was a breeding ground for corrupt practices. However, the general view is that corruption in Ukraine has remained no less acute than it was during the reign of Yushchenko's predecessor, Leonid Kuchma. No senior official from Kuchma's regime has been brought to court on charges of corruption or abuse of office.

Third, Yushchenko was constrained to dismiss Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko's cabinet in September, after some high-ranking government officials accused several top presidential aides of corrupt practices. The crisis served to severely damage the Yushchenko camp by fueling arguments that the Orange Revolution was not so much a popular revolt as a rebellion of pro-Yushchenko "millionaires" against pro-Yanukovych "billionaires."

Fourth, Yushchenko made an ill-advised deal with Yanukovych in late September to secure the approval of a new cabinet. In particular, Yushchenko obliged himself to draft a bill on amnesty for those guilty of election fraud in 2004. In other words, Yushchenko not only reneged on his vow to "send all bandits to jail," but also undermined one of the primary motivations of those who supported the Orange Revolution. Many of Yushchenko's former supporters and sympathizers were taken aback by this move, and some accused him of "betraying" the revolution.

Fifth, prior to the cabinet crisis in September, Yushchenko could hardly be credited as a strong-willed and objective-driven leader. For example, he involved himself in an embarrassing public argument with Tymoshenko regarding the scale of reprivatization in Ukraine. While the president wanted to review some 30 dubious privatizations, the prime minister called for a much broader effort -- saying their number must be at least 3,000. For several months Yushchenko also tolerated the existence of two "parallel governments" in the country, one centered on Tymoshenko's cabinet and another on the National Security and Defense Council headed by Petro Poroshenko. To resolve this controversy, he eventually dismissed both of them.

Sixth, there is also a growing feeling in Ukraine that Yushchenko came to power with hardly any coherent or long-term economic program. For many commentators this was illustrated by the much publicized reprivatization of the Kryvorizhstal steel mill. In October, the government sold Kryvorizhstal to a Dutch steel conglomerate for some $4.8 billion -- six times the amount Kuchma's government received for it in 2004. Initially, Yushchenko said the money would be spent in the social sphere to improve the lives of ordinary Ukrainians. However, he recanted on this promise and announced that the sum would be primarily invested in Ukrainian industries. Meanwhile, lawmakers have reportedly drafted no fewer than 20 bills on how to spend the Kryvorizhstal windfall. This seems to indicate that decision-makers in Ukraine remain fairly confused regarding the country's development priorities or economic course after the Orange Revolution.

For most Ukrainians, the above-mentioned drawbacks of the postrevolutionary government in Ukraine seem to outweigh the benefits that derived from Yushchenko's coming to power. This is unfortunate, as it is difficult to ignore or to discredit the accomplishments of the Orange Revolution.

First, Ukrainian media now operate in an incomparably freer environment than they did during the Kuchma era. Second, the Orange Revolution has given rise to vibrant civic activism, pulling Ukrainians out of the public passivity that is characteristic of many post-Soviet societies. And third, the Orange Revolution has introduced a political reform that will soon transform the country into a parliamentary-presidential republic -- that is, objectively a more democratic political system than most post-Soviet governments.

It is these achievements that should be most remembered on Independence Square on 22 November.

The Orange Revolution

The Orange Revolution

An archive of RFE/RL's reporting and analysis on Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

REVOLUTION IN THE AIR: Listen to an audio portrait of the Orange Revolution from RFE/RL's archives.
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