Yushchenko supporters see hopes of a new dawn crushed in Ukraine
Fifteen months after the orange revolution brought President Viktor Yushchenko to power on a wave of street protests, the ideals of that people-power uprising are under threat...
Resplendent in a traditional embroidered shirt with tassels at the neck, Andriy Shkil would strike anyone as a Ukrainian patriot. His office is decorated with a ceremonial sword and a painting of a Cossack charging into battle. The 40-year-old candidate in Ukraine`s parliamentary elections peaks passionately about the future of his country, "on the crossroads of Europe and Asia".
Yet there is a blot in Mr Shkil`s otherwise faultless copybook. When the interior minister, Yuri Lutsenko, published a blacklist last month of almost 100 former convicts and criminal suspects among candidates to this Sunday`s parliamentary elections, he was on it. "I know I`m innocent," he protested. "It`s the rest of them I`m worried about."
Fifteen months after the orange revolution brought President Viktor Yushchenko to power on a wave of street protests, the ideals of that people-power uprising are under threat.
A glance at the list of election candidates shows a motley crowd of criminal suspects, chancers and businessmen scrambling to get into parliament
Mr Yushchenko`s supporters fear that Ukraine is on the brink of slithering back into the murky days of the 1990s when corruption was rife. In late 2004 and early 2005 they camped for weeks on Kiev`s main boulevard, fired up by his promises to slough off the post-Soviet Ukraine of bent bureaucrats and businessmen meddling in politics.
Yet the bad old ways were never shed and the party of their nemesis, Viktor Yanukovich - Mr Yushchenko`s political enemy from the time of the revolution - is poised to seize an increased share of parliament.
Mr Yanukovich, a former prime minister who represents the majority in the pro-Russian east and south of the country, has promised to slow Ukraine`s integration into Europe, and reject entry into Nato. His Party of the Regions wants to improve ties with Moscow that were battered by a dispute over gas prices earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Yulia Timoshenko, Mr Yushchenko`s ally during the revolution, has led her party into opposition, splitting the orange vote. For the hundreds of thousands of protesters who poured into central Kiev to support Mr Yushchenko in the disputed presidential election in 2004, it is a heavy blow.
"Our heroes fell out and now the old guard is on the march," said Vova Zakharov, 25, a veteran of the revolution, who camped for 75 days in central Kiev during the orange protests.
Disappointed at Mr Yushchenko`s failure to fulfil his vow of a democratic future, he and his friends have pitched six military tents in front of the cabinet of ministers building, half a mile from Independence Square.
Their main complaint is the agreement signed in January on supplies of Russian gas that benefited a shadowy intermediary company thought to be part-owned by senior Ukrainian officials. "We soon saw that the corruption went on just as before," said Mr Zakharov. "Nothing really changed."
Many Yushchenko supporters are incensed at hints that his Our Ukraine party may enter into a marriage of convenience with the resurgent Party of the Regions after the elections.
According to the latest polls the Party of the Regions has about 30%, trailed by Our Ukraine with about 20%, and Ms Timoshenko`s bloc with 15%.
No team is likely to win the majority needed to form a government, raising the spectre of intense bargaining between the bigger players.
Andrew Wilson of University College London, the author of Ukraine`s Orange Revolution, said that "odious individuals" from all parties were likely to get a toehold in parliament.
The colourful Mr Shkil is an exception: a victim of political persecution, he spent 13 months in prison after leading a protest against the former president, Leonid Kuchma, in 2000. But many suspect figures remain on the ballots.
Underworld bosses prize a spot on parliament`s benches because it gives them immunity from prosecution, while shady businessmen hope to protect their ill-won deals.
Mr Lutsenko called for candidates on his blacklist to abandon their scramble for the 450 seats in parliament. The interior minister discovered that 11 candidates were wanted for questioning, 37 had criminal cases opened against them, 41 were involved in cases that were being transferred to court and 10 were convicted criminals.
But although eight of the latter have been struck off and the other two will soon go, no other person has heeded the call to quit.
One leading candidate - not on the blacklist - is the secretive billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, a metals and mining magnate from the eastern Donetsk region who is thought to be the real power behind its former governor, Mr Yanukovich. He has been repeatedly accused by his critics of manipulating politics in his favour.
"The Party of the Regions is not just a political force; it`s a structure that provides cover to the business clan of Donetsk," said Mr Shkil, who is running in Ms Timoshenko`s bloc.
Mr Yanukovich, his fortunes rising and his increasingly statesmanlike image polished by US consultants, has let such accusations roll off him. Workers at his Party of the Regions headquarters are quietly confident ahead of the weekend vote. They know their party has huge support and has benefited from the troubles of the orange clan.
Yevgeny Kushnaryov, head of the campaign, said that many of his candidates were only investigated as revenge after the orange revolution. The finger-pointing, he said, had got to stop. "There is something which can unite us - the need to create a strong, respected state with a growing economy," he said. "If we try, we can do that together."
It is a measured tone that has contrasted sharply with the squabbling of the orange leaders.
"We must learn the lessons of why the orange coalition collapsed," the president said during a recent talkshow. "It was the failure to recognize the position of one`s partners, it was insincere behaviour, it was behind-the-scenes intrigue."
Yet the taint of corruption is never far away. Senior figures who were accused last year of nepotism by Mr Yushchenko`s chief of staff, Oleksandr Zinchenko, have re-emerged as candidates for Our Ukraine.
"He tried to purge the bad guys from his party but he failed," said Dmytro Sennychenko, a former aide to the president. "And now they`re at the top of his list."
For Mr Zakharov, the protest veteran, it is another sign of the bitter letdown that followed the heady days of the revolution. "We stood in the street for weeks to change our country, not to keep it the same old way it was."
THEN AND NOW
-Opposition leader and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in 2004: "The people of Ukraine have managed to determine their future without resorting to violence. The will of the people has triumphed and the old administration now understands that it has lost."
-Mr Yushchenko now: "We must learn the lessons of why the orange coalition collapsed. It was the failure to recognise the position of one’s partners, it was insincere behaviour, it was behind-the-scenes intrigue."
-Prime minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich in 2004, to Mr Yushchenko: "If you win the vote you will only be the president of part of Ukraine. I am not struggling for power. I am struggling against bloodshed."
-Party leader Mr Yanukovich now: "The orange revolution was a putsch, plain and simple. And it caused the people real suffering."
The article was monitored by The Action Ukraine Report (AUR) Monitoring Service, Morgan Williams, Editor.