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Unloved But Unbowed, Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko Leaves Office

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (left) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in Kyiv in late January.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (left) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in Kyiv in late January.
KYIV -- Five years ago, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians chanted Viktor Yushchenko's name on Kyiv's Independence Square during mass protests prompted by widespread anger over his defeat in a rigged presidential election. Braving snow and temperatures well below freezing, the demonstrators set up tents, sang, and waved the orange campaign flags that gave their movement its name.

Onstage, rock bands gave concerts and opposition leaders rallied the crowds. Tensions between the opposition and the authorities ran high, overshadowed by the possibility of a violent police crackdown.

Yushchenko promised to ensure the law would prevail and the election results would be overturned. As their struggle played out on television screens around the world, the protesters stayed out day after day, giving the opposition crucial momentum.

It was Yushchenko's biggest triumph. The Supreme Court annulled the victory of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow prime minister and chosen successor of hard-line President Leonid Kuchma, under whose regime opposition figures and journalists were assassinated. Yushchenko went on to seal the Orange camp's victory by winning a new election.

But the man who overcame great odds to lead Ukraine during a pivotal time in its history leaves a deeply contradictory legacy. With Yanukovych now sworn in as the country's fourth president, Yushchenko has left office with Ukraine in economic crisis and paralyzed by a bitter political standoff that has Ukrainians disillusioned and wondering what the Orange Revolution was all about.

Life-And-Death Struggle

Yushchenko's Orange Revolution victory was a breathtaking achievement in a former Soviet republic whose neighbors had slid back toward authoritarianism. Russia had campaigned hard for Yanukovych, but the odds against pro-Western Yushchenko were far more than merely political.

He was fighting for his life and in terrible physical pain, his handsome face grotesquely disfigured by a massive dose of dioxin poison he accused Moscow-backed government agents of administering. At times, Yushchenko was able to appear in public only because Austrian doctors had threaded a tube under the skin of his back to deliver a constant flow of painkillers.

Viktor Yushchenko before and after the dioxin poisoning
Oleh Rybachuk ran Yushchenko's campaign and later became his presidential chief of staff. He says Yushchenko's pain was "unbearable."

"He was begging doctors just to let him die," Rybachuk says. "The doctors implanted the strongest painkiller in his back, but at some level they were hesitating. They were afraid that his heart would stop. Therefore they were really balancing on the edge of life and death."

With Yushchenko physically unable to travel, it was his main ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, who did most of the campaigning. The fiery orator adopted her now-familiar image, dressing in glamorous white outfits and wearing her newly blonde hair in a fairy-tale braid crown. Her impassioned appearances catapulted her to political stardom, but they also helped ensure Yushchenko victory.

The new president continued to suffer searing pain for years. Rybachuk says in addition to the enormous damage Yushchenko's poisoning caused his nervous system, it had a tremendous psychological effect on a man with Hollywood good looks.

"He said many times in public that when he woke up in the morning, every time, for years after that," he says, "he couldn't put up with the thought that the reflection he was seeing was actually himself. For anyone -- forget about a public figure or candidate for the presidency -- it might totally destroy your identity, your personality. It affected him very seriously."

'First Real President'

But the man whose pockmarked face became the symbol of the fight against authoritarianism wasn't always fated to become an opposition leader. As head of Ukraine's central bank in the 1990s, Yushchenko was known as a centrist -- loyal to then-President Kuchma -- who ushered in a national currency and other reforms that drew praise in the West. After his unexpected appointment as prime minister in 1999, the former collective-farm accountant rebuffed attempts by some of the country's fractured opposition to become their leader.

But Yushchenko changed his mind after he was removed from office amid bitter opposition to his government's reforms from powerful business oligarchs.

After winning the presidency, Yushchenko called himself Ukraine's "first real president."

"We were independent for 14 years, but not free," he said at the time.

The new leader vowed to attack rampant corruption, arrest criminals, and put Ukraine on a path toward Europe. He urged Ukrainians to "roll up our sleeves and work honestly from morning until night for this country."

But Yushchenko himself spent most of his first year in office traveling around European capitals receiving awards. Warmly welcomed in the United States, which had quietly backed him during the Orange Revolution, he was given the rare honor of addressing a joint session of Congress.

Back at home, Yushchenko cultivated the image of a patrician, a man who dressed impeccably -- his tie always matching his pocket square -- but who remained connected to the land. He kept bees at his dacha and was known to leave ministers waiting on important matters of state while he watered the plants in his office.

Rybachuk, who later became Yushchenko's chief of staff, says the president could have used his great popularity to carry out desperately needed reforms.

"He could have done anything," Rybachuk says. "He could have changed the constitution, called for early parliamentary elections if he had used that peak of his popularity for the top priorities for the country. But what actually happened was that the best time of his presidency was almost wasted."

Tymoshenko Obsession

Almost immediately after his election, Yushchenko became mired in infighting with Tymoshenko, whom he had named prime minister. He fired her in September 2005, after she had set price caps on basic goods and demanded the re-privatization of state assets, which prompted accusations of populism and authoritarianism.

The first public clash between Yushchenko and his most important ally ushered in a bitter five-year standoff. Rybachuk says it also ended Yushchenko's vital political role of a uniter who'd brought Ukraine's fractious opposition together. No longer allied with the woman Ukrainians saw as an integral part of the Orange duo, Yushchenko saw his popularity plummet.

Rybachuk says he soon developed an obsession with undermining Tymoshenko that bordered on the "paranoiac."

"Tymoshenko became his only subject," Rybachuk says.

But Yushchenko's criticism only added to Tymoshenko's popularity. It also helped open the way for Yanukovych, the villain of the Orange Revolution, to emerge from political exile to take up the role of opposition leader.

President Yushchenko (left) after he installed Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister in 2006
After parliamentary elections in 2006 gave Tymoshenko's political bloc far more votes than Yushchenko's party, he restored Yanukovych as prime minister, joining forces with his old foe rather than seeing Tymoshenko return to power. That, too, backfired.

Yushchenko dismissed Yanukovych only months later, accusing him of trying to usurp power.

Tymoshenko made even greater advances in the next round of snap elections, this time leaving Yushchenko with no option but to agree to join her in a new Orange coalition. Still, he objected.

Dmitry Vydrin, then a close adviser to Tymoshenko, says Yushchenko disappeared during the negotiations.

"Tymoshenko was calling him every five minutes," Vydrin says. "It turns out he was at his dacha with his mobile phone switched off, turning over mint leaves drying in the sun. That was more important for him than the coalition."

"Mint represents the eternal for Yushchenko, the soul," Vydrin says. "The coalition was just temporary."

Anger In Moscow

By then, Yushchenko had lost a large amount of power to constitutional reforms he'd accepted during negotiations to settle the political crisis of 2004. But he maintained control over foreign policy, and with it Ukraine's drive to join NATO.

Most Ukrainians opposed the NATO effort, especially in the industrial, Russian-speaking east of the country that had backed Yanukovych and wanted closer ties with Russia.

Moscow also vehemently objected to policies it saw as giving the West influence over former Soviet territory in its own backyard. The Kremlin feared the Orange Revolution would provide a model to those Russians chafing under its own authoritarian rule.

Russia had awarded Ukraine a five-year, highly subsidized natural gas contract in 2004 meant to boost then-Prime Minister Yanukovych's presidential bid. But after the pro-Western opposition came to power, Moscow issued a fourfold price increase. When Kyiv balked and last-minute negotiations broke down, Russia cut off supplies during a bitterly cold winter. A second shutoff last year lasted three weeks, disrupting supplies to millions in other European countries.

Yushchenko's championing of the Ukrainian language and historical revisionism further taxed Ukraine's deeply strained relations with its centuries-long former imperial master. Chief among controversial topics was a calamitous 1932 famine that Ukrainians call Holodomor -- partly brought on by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's collectivization of agriculture across the USSR -- that Yushchenko called a genocide against Ukrainians.

Sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina says Yushchenko believes Ukrainians' most important task is to learn values from their own history.

"He believes nation-building is the main thing, the formation of the Ukrainian nation based on the past," Bekeshkina says. "But most people haven't accepted that, they want to live for today and tomorrow."

Nationalism Controversy

Yushchenko stirred controversy again last month by bestowing the title Hero of Ukraine on an insurgent army leader who fought against the Soviets before his assassination by the KGB in Munich in 1959.

But many in eastern Ukraine denounce Stepan Bandera for collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a U.S. Jewish human rights group, criticized Yushchenko, saying Bandera's followers were linked to the deaths of thousands of Jews.

Yushchenko's move also caused an outcry in Poland, which has done much to repair traditionally antagonistic relations with Kyiv. Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who says Bandera is responsible for the mass killing of Poles, criticized Yushchenko for putting "current political interests" over "historical truth."

Yushchenko dismisses the criticism against him. In a characteristically unbending assessment last month, he defended his presidency in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

"I'll never bow my head and say I failed in some way during these past five years," he said. "I gave this nation what it needs. If it can understand that, it will be its salvation. If it can't, we'll have to spend another 15 to 20 years under Yanukovyches and Tymoshenkos, under a Kremlin project, just like under Kuchma."

Orange Revolution Repudiation

It was one of Yushchenko's final decisions in office that his burgeoning number of critics say drove the final nail into the coffin of his moribund reputation as a reformer.

Eliminated from Ukraine's presidential election after winning just 5 percent of the vote in the first round last month, Yushchenko signed a law changing the voting rules three days before a runoff between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych. The new rules, initiated by Yanukovych's Party of Regions, scrapped the requirement for a quorum of observers from all sides to approve counts at each polling station. Tymoshenko called the legislation a "death warrant" for Ukrainian democracy.

It was one of several last-minute moves that were seen to hurt Tymoshenko's chances and that prompted rumors Yushchenko had forged a secret agreement with Yanukovych to undermine Tymoshenko at any cost.

But it was Yushchenko's instruction to his supporters to vote "against all" instead of for Tymoshenko that many believe tipped the election to Yanukovych, who won by less than 4 percent.

WATCH: Excerpts from "The Orange Chronicles," a documentary film by U.S. filmmaker Damian Kolody, capture the heady days of Viktor Yushchenko's rise to power as president of Ukraine in 2004. (

However expected, Yanukovych's victory was a jarring repudiation of the pro-Western movement Yushchenko once led, exposing a country fundamentally split between its east and west.

Few in Kyiv can explain the apparently self-defeating actions of a politician who carried off his previous roles as prime minister and opposition leader with aplomb. There are rumors, none proven, of an affair with Tymoshenko that ended badly. Others say Yushchenko was motivated simply by the envy of a man who couldn't stomach being bested in politics by a strong woman.

Oleh Rybachuk, Yushchenko's former aide, says he and others told Yushchenko that fighting with Tymoshenko would surely end his political career. He also says the president's family members and others in his inner circle contributed to a "vicious circle" of rumors that Tymoshenko was plotting against him.

Disillusioned Ukrainians

Yushchenko leaves office with corruption booming, Ukrainians suffering the effects of a devastating economic crisis, and the political leadership still in deadlock. Yanukovych takes over with Tymoshenko accusing him of stealing the election and vowing to fight his promise to remove her as prime minister.

As Yushchenko departs, Ukrainians are angry that corruption is rife and the economy is in the tank.
The state of affairs has left many Ukrainians disillusioned, saying they have almost no trust in politicians or their government and don't believe the Orange Revolution did much beyond offer broken promises.

Even in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv -- one Yushchenko's biggest support bases -- resident Pavel Tereshchuk echoes common opinion, saying he's been severely disappointed by the man he supported in 2004.

"Yushchenko's ideas and intentions were good, but he wasn't able to accomplish anything," Tereshchuk says. "Most important, he wasn't able to unite the country and create effective authority. Now there's conflict and complete chaos in Ukraine."

Uncertain Future

What place will Yushchenko occupy in Ukrainian history? Rybachuk says his legacy was to temporarily unite the opposition and "break down the wall" of the old Kuchma administration.

"He was probably the only chance for us to break down that wall," Rybachuk says, "because if the result [of the Orange Revolution] were to have been the opposite, we would already be cemented in a Belarusian type of country."

But Rybachuk says Yushchenko failed to replace the old administration with a new model.

Yanukovych plans to visit Brussels next month on his first foreign trip as president, a signal he wants to continue improving relations with the European Union. But Rybachuk says Yushchenko's presidency has left Ukraine further from achieving his major promise of European integration than it stood immediately after the Orange Revolution.

For his part, Yushchenko -- who during the election appeared to be doing everything possible to make sure Tymoshenko lost -- bitterly complained after casting his ballot in the runoff that Ukrainians would regret any outcome without him as leader.

"I think Ukrainians will be ashamed of their choice," Yushchenko said, "but that's also democracy."

The president made a quick exit from the ballot station without answering reporters' questions. It was a hasty, dour affair for the man once cheered by hundreds of thousands, and to whom he bequeaths a very uncertain future.

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