Who is he?

Viktor Yushchenko was born in the north-east of Ukraine, in an anomalous agricultural and Ukrainian-speaking area which is surrounded by the industrial and Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. One sixth of Ukrainians are ethnic Russians, and it is from this area that Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko's opponent in the election, drew most of his support. The east/west divide is crucial to Ukrainian politics, being perceived as so deep that commentators such as Samuel Huntingdon have speculated on the break-up of Ukraine and the absorbtion of the eastern region into Russia. Yanukovych was pledged to make Russian the national language of the Ukraine.

Viktor's father was a teacher, indicating that the family enjoyed a social status and standard of living better than that of the average villager. Viktor's undergraduate education was in economics at Ternopil', a city in the west of the country. This foreshadowed his lifelong interest in economic affairs and the professional life he spent involved with money, first as a village accountant and then working in the Soviet national bank.

Yushchenko is married to Kateryna Yushchenko Chumachenko, his second wife. She is the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants in the USA who placed a priority on maintaining their cultural identity in the American melting pot - so as, Kateryna says, to preserve Ukrainian culture from been totally crushed by the Soviet Leviathan. She studied business at the University of Chigaco, but her first job in public life was in the human rights office at the U.S. State Department under the Reagan administration. She then worked in the Treasury in George H.W. Bush's department. This linkage to Reagan's idealistic State Department is meaningful when trying to understand her and Yushchenko's priorities. But Kateryna's dream was always an independent Ukraine - so after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she duly moved back to train the country's economists about the workings of the free market.

Yushchenko is now President of Ukraine and Kateryna is its First Lady. In the past he has been the deputy chairman of the Soviet national bank in Kiev, and head of the National Bank of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Entering politics, he became Prime Minister to Leonid Kuchma with the overwhelming support of the Parliament in 1999, but was forced out in 2001 after trying to confront entrenched Communist and oligarchal interests in the primary sector. Four million people signed a petition to show their disapproval of Kuchma and Parliament's decision, and there was a ten thousand strong demonstration in Kiev.

Yushchenko went on become de facto leader of the opposition as head of the Our Ukraine coalition from 2002, and in 2004 he ran as an independent candidate for President.

What does he stand for?

Yushchenko has always stood for economic modernisation and privatisation, an issue on which he was fundamentally at odds with Kuchma. However, while Yushchenko was a close ally of Kuchma he remained the loyal and diligent technocrat discharging his master's wishes. When Yushchenko was dismissed, his charisma and popularity could come into their own in his new capacity as head of Our Ukraine. His views and opinions could come to their full flower, and be offered to the Ukrainian people for a referendum on his view versus that of the entrenched elite.

The first thing Yushchenko stands for is to orient Ukraine towards the west rather than towards the Russian Federation. He does this in the face of strong resistance from the Russian President who pledged upon his election in 2000 that he would restore Russian influence in "the zones of traditional influence" and has declared the collapse of the USSR to be a "national tragedy on an enormous scale." Vladimir Putin publically backed Yanukovych and Russian state media has constantly libelled Yushchenko and his wife. For instance, it has been pointed out that his wife is a U.S. citizen and hence cannot be trusted - what has been omitted is that Kuchma's government would not allow her to get Ukrainian citizenship, despite her life-long dedication to the nation's cause.

The leader of the Russian Communist Party has claimed that U.S. special services were instrumental in organising and financing the opposition just as they allegedly did in "Prague, Budapest and Bucharest". Pravda (yes, it still exists) claimed even more alarmingly that "Nato troops in Hungary and Poland are preparing to move, and Romanian and Slovakian military units have been put on alert. Ukrainian towns are in their sights." Russian spin doctors who aided the Yanukovych campaign were instrumental in shaping his message, which was that Yushchenko was an American stooge and an anti-Semite, as well as the son of a Nazi. Yushchenko's father was a Red Army soldier who spent time in Auschwitz.

The second thing Yushchenko stands for is to attack the corruption that was the trademark of Kuchma's government, and to start again where he left off with the oligarchs in 2001. This is a vital task for the peoples of all the ex-Soviet states, as entrenched power structures, both political and economic, remain in the hands of an elite who are invariably pro-Russian. This is precisely what led to the downfall of Eduard Shevardnadze. We must be careful not to idolise Yushchenko or those like him in the ex-Soviet states, nor should we expect change to be instant and wonderful. Many citizens of the USA may be surprised to learn Yushchenko is pledged to remove Ukrainian troops from Iraq - although he is doubtlessly a great thing for his country and the world, he is also a pragmatist who will chart his own course which may sometimes conflict with the west. Such is the character of true friends and not puppets.

This said, the events by which Yushchenko has come to power cannot help but stir the hearts of those who welcome the expansion of freedom across the globe, as non-violent resistance and tactics of peaceful protest brought an oppressive government to its knees and brought about a true revolution in the country.

The 'Orange Revolution'

A path to a compromise through people demonstrating their will is the only path that will help us find a way out of this conflict. Therefore, the committee of national salvation declares a nationwide political strike.
~ Yushchenko, after run-off #2

The Ukrainian election of 2004 was run a total of three times. The first vote was held on October 31, 2004, and the two main candidates received roughly 39% of the vote each, with a slight victory for Yushchenko. However, the Ukrainian Constitution specifies that a candidate must win 50% of the vote in a first round to assume the Presidency, and so a new round of voting was scheduled for November 21, 2004. The official results in the second round were 49.42% for Yanukovych and 46.69% for his opponent. However, the result was soon under attack from the OSCE, the European Union, and the U.S. election monitoring team.

Dirty tactics had been employed by someone even before the election. In September of 2004, Yushchenko was poisoned with orally-administered dioxin, and ended up with the second largest concentration in his body ever recorded. Yushchenko traces the poisoning to a meal he had with the Ukrainian Security Services in September, noting that this was the only meal he had at this time which was not controlled by aides, and that he began to feel ill shortly afterwards. However, sceptics note that he had pro-actively arranged the meeting himself and that during it he was assured of the neutrality of the security services in the forthcoming election. Russian state media initially issued a typical smear and claimed he had a disfiguring case of herpes, although that dioxin is the cause of his illness is now beyond doubt.

In the eastern, Yanukovych-supporting regions, the November poll showed a dramatic increase in voter turn-out, which in some voting districts was over 100% - in one case, 127%. In the Yanukovych stronghold of Donetsk, half a million new voters registered between the run-offs, and it is alleged that people in some form of government institute - prisons, hospitals, schools - were compelled to vote for the government. The Ukrainian Supreme Court ruled that there had been huge falsification of results in all of the areas where turn-out increased dramatically and Yanukovych won. Exit polls had given Yushchenko an 11% lead over his opponent.

On November 23, 500,000 people poured into Kiev's Independence Square and peacefully demonstrated in front of the Ukrainian Parliament. After meeting Kuchma and trying to resolve the situation and failing, Yushchenko called for a nationwide general strike and nonviolent resistance. Government buildings were blockaded and the work of the state brought to a standstill. On November 26, state media declared that it would lie no more and began to publicise the opposition rallies and to allow opposition spokesmen to air their views. On December 3, the Supreme Court ruled that the second run-off had been marred by widespread irregularities and set a third run-off to occur on December 26, 2004.

Other crucial events occured between the third run-off, which Yushchenko won by roughly ten points, and the decision to hold it. On December 8, the Ukrainian Parliament approved overwhelmingly a motion to change the balance of power between the executive and legislature in favour of the latter. Hence the 'Orange Revolution' has a lasting legacy beyond the immediate election of Yushchenko. Its legacy will doubtlessly influence not only Ukraine, but its neighbours, Russia, and the European Union, as well as the relations of America to all these polities. For many Ukrainians, the feeling is summed up in these words of Yushchenko's - "We were independent for 14 years, today we became free." With Russia angered and the split between west and east hardly mended, time will tell whether this freedom will not yet exact a high price.

Sources: BBC, The Moscow Times, Wikipedia, The Wall Street Journal, AP, Pravda

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