Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Orange Believers Losing Faith

APYushchenko giving a thumbs up while greeting supporters on Independence Square on Nov. 23, 2004, two days after a runoff election robbed him of victory.
KIEV -- One recent rainy day, Natalya Simonenko was suddenly overcome with nostalgia for the time she spent on Independence Square a year ago.

She opened the drawer where she kept last year's Orange Revolution memorabilia -- orange ribbons, a mug with President Viktor Yushchenko's portrait, an orange scarf, several orange flags and her favorite orange sweater -- and decided to throw them all into the trash.

"It was the right place for them, I felt relieved afterward. I couldn't even imagine myself throwing these things away before, but now ... " she said, her voice trailing off.

Simonenko, 26, a businesswoman from the Black Sea port of Odessa, was one of the many thousands of orange-clad people who last year crammed Kiev's central Independence Square to protest the fraudulent Nov. 21, 2004, runoff election that gave victory to then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. After two weeks of continuous protests -- often in freezing temperatures -- the election result was overturned, and in December Yushchenko was elected president in a rerun of the vote.

Like many participants in the protests, Simonenko hoped that Yushchenko would put an end to the cronyism and corruption under his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.

But a year later, the mood of the participants in the Orange Revolution has switched from one of initial euphoria to deep disappointment, with many of those who took to the streets in protest now seeing no difference between the old and the new ruling elites.

And the team of Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, the hero and the heroine of Independence Square, are seen by many of their former supporters as failing to keep their promises.

Orange, the emblematic color of Yushchenko's supporters, is hardly seen on the streets of Kiev anymore, while opinion polls show that Ukrainians increasingly think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

"I was one of the few in Odessa to support Yushchenko; I traveled to Kiev to demonstrate," Simonenko said during a recent trip to the capital. "I used to argue with my family and my neighbors who supported Yanukovych. I wanted the country to change, but after a year I see that nothing has, corruption is still high, and the oligarchs are still running things."

In response to allegations of corruption within his inner circle, in September Yushchenko fired his government, including Tymoshenko, his prime minister, and his close ally Petro Poroshenko, head of the National Security and Defense Council, who was one of the main sponsors of his presidential campaign.

Yushchenko then struck an alliance with former opponent Yanukovych in an effort to secure the parliament's approval for his choice as prime minister, Russian-born technocrat Yuriy Yekhanurov.

Yekhanurov, who is close to Kuchma, was seen as a compromise candidate who could act as an intermediary between Yushchenko and the Dnipropetrovsk-based clan of Kuchma's son-in-law, oligarch Viktor Pinchuk. From 1994 to 1997 -- a time when several of the country's oligarchs made their fortunes -- Yekhanurov was responsible for overseeing the privatization of several large state enterprises.

Yanukovych is seen as representing the interests of the Donetsk clan, headed by Ukraine's richest man, Rynat Akhmetov. The Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk clans are among the several geographically defined oligarchic groups that during Kuchma's rule competed for control over the country's business and politics.


Jerome Delay / AP

Orange Revolution supporters singing the national anthem during a rally on Independence Square on Dec. 4, 2004.

In their September pact, Yushchenko and Yanukovych agreed that there would no be prosecutions for electoral fraud from last year's elections, a move seen as a betrayal by those who helped Yushchenko to become president.

"The present authorities have failed to do anything 'orange people' would be proud of," said Pavlo Zubyuk, 23, a member of the Pora, or It's Time, youth group that organized many of last year's protests. "Even those who rigged the election results will not be punished. This is not what we were promised."

Since last December, Pora has split organizationally into two wings. One, known as the black Pora, has remained a pressure group, while the other, known as the yellow Pora, is running in next March's parliamentary elections as a political party.

On Sunday, Ukraine will mark the official anniversary of the Orange Revolution. As part of the celebrations, soup kitchens and a huge stage will be set up on Independence Square, just as they were during last year's street protests.

Despite her split with Yushchenko, Tymoshenko said that she would take part in the anniversary. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party, which is organizing the celebrations, said all those who supported his presidential campaign had been invited.

The black Pora, however, said it would hold a separate demonstration to press Yushchenko to fulfill his election promises.

Last year Nadya Prudyak, 24, now a leading black Pora member, was one of those who slept out in the tents on the square.

She canvassed for Yushchenko at the city's universities -- a job that she said had now left a bad taste in her mouth.

"Much of the old system we were fighting has remained. We were fighting not because we liked Yushchenko but because we hoped for big political changes. We wanted to get rid of the players of Kuchma's era, but nothing has changed," she said.

Many former Orange Revolution supporters blame not only Yushchenko for dashing of their dreams -- they blame Tymoshenko's government too, for allowing inflation to rise and failing to maintain living standards.

The new government initially raised pensions and salaries, but Tymoshenko and Yushchenko fell out over how to deal with the thorny issue of the Kuchma-era privatizations, when insiders laid their hands on large chunks of state industry in cut-rate deals. Tymoshenko called for hundreds of deals to be annulled, but Yushchenko favored a softer approach.

Government interference in the economy was blamed for scaring off investors and prompting an increase in food and gas prices. The economy has grown by less than 4 percent this year -- a shocking decline from last year's 12 percent growth.

During last year's protests, Yulia Artushenko, 59, a resident of Ukrainka, a small town 40 kilometers outside Kiev, brought fresh pies she had baked to the people on Independence Square. Now, she said, her enthusiasm has "completely gone."

"I believed in that revolution so much," she said. "I really wanted to live in a new country, but the only things that have changed are that food prices have gone up and that it's more difficult for pensioners to live now."

Scandals surrounding Yushchenko's government have also played their part in turning his former supporters against him.

In one particularly high-profile case, the high-rolling lifestyle of Yushchenko's son Andriy came under scrutiny as many asked where a 19-year-old student had come by a $100,000 BMW, an expensive cell phone and money to spend in Kiev's most fashionable nightclubs.

The online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, which supported Yushchenko's election campaign, was the first to raise the issue. But at a news conference, Yushchenko angrily accused one of the newspaper's reporters of being on someone's payroll.

"This is not what we expected from Yushchenko," said the paper's chief editor, Alyona Prytula. "When he was running for president, he promised that he would make public the incomes of all his family, but we're still waiting for that."

Prytula founded the newspaper five years ago with investigative reporter Heorhiy Gongadze in an effort to expose corruption under Kuchma's regime. In November 2000, Gongadze's headless body was found outside Kiev, and Kuchma was accused of involvement in the killing. Kuchma has denied any wrongdoing.

Soon after Yushchenko was elected, he pledged to find and punish those responsible for Gongadze's murder, but it remains unsolved.

"Yushchenko gave his word that Heorhiy's killers would be found, but he hasn't been able to carry out his promise," Prytula said.

Now, she said, the newspaper has broken with Yushchenko and is in opposition again.

"I'm tired of leading the opposition media. What I want is to be part of the normal media in a normal country," Prytula said.

The only positive change under Yushchenko, she said, is that the press is free -- and that journalists are no longer afraid of being killed if they criticize the president.

The sense of disillusionment appears reflected in recent polls, such as one carried out last month of 2,100 people by the Ukrainian Institute of Social Research. It found that 20 percent of respondents planned to vote for Yanukovych's Regions Party in March's parliamentary elections, while 13.8 percent said they would vote for Tymoshenko's bloc and just 12.3 percent for Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party.

In Simonenko's hometown of Odessa, where most residents speak Russian as their first language and Yanukovych won about 70 percent of the vote in last year's elections, she said friends and neighbors now laugh at her for supporting the protests.

"They say, 'So, what happened with your beloved Yushchenko?' It's so disappointing," Simonenko said.

She said the upcoming elections left her cold.

"I don't even know whom to vote for," she said. "What choice is there anymore?"