KIEV, Ukraine -- Five years after Victor Yushchenko became the disfigured face of the Orange Revolution, it is tempting to believe the conspiracy theories that he was never actually poisoned at all.
The skin that was once hideously pockmarked is gradually recovering, and with the help of make-up, there is little sign of the attack that nearly killed him back in 2004. Indeed, were it not for the blood tests that confirmed the presence of lethal dioxin poisons, the wear and tear on his cheeks might be simply the strains of steering Ukraine away from Russia's grasp and towards the West.To this day, though, the Ukrainian president remains "vigilant" about his personal security - not that he thinks there was anything particularly personal about the original attack, which was blamed on pro-Kremlin political rivals. Whoever wins next month's presidential elections will find themselves in the firing line, he says, if they try to take Ukraine down the same path he has done."It was not about me, Yushchenko," he said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last week. "Ukraine was proving a bad example for Russia, and a good example for Europe, and that was the problem. Irrespective of the name of the next president, if he or she is a democrat, a pro-European politician, they will have similar problems."One other thing, however, also looks certain - that new president is unlikely to be Mr Yushchenko. The man once hailed as democracy's battle-scarred posterboy is trailing far behind in the contest, scraping just single figures in some polls. After personifying the hopes of the Orange Revolution five years ago, he now symbolises the way its glow has faded, having failed to secure either European Union or Nato membership.It marks a sour end to what began as a Christmas political fairy tale five years ago, when Mr Yushchenko and his glamorous blonde ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, formed a kind of "Beauty and the Beast" alliance against the Moscow-favoured Viktor Yanukovych.When Mr Yanukovych triumphed in what was seen as a rigged presidential election, Kiev's Independence Square filled with half a million protestors, who camped out night after night in sub-zero temperatures.People power finally triumphed when Ukraine's supreme court ordered the vote to be re-run on Boxing Day, ushering in Mr Yushchenko as president and Ms Tymoshenko as prime minister.Last week, though, the unusually early cold snap that covered the square's Stalinist-era architecture with thick snow was the only reminder of those euphoric days. Mr Yushchenko and Mrs Tymoshenko, once iconised in Time and Elle magazines respectively, have proved unable to get along, leading the government into paralysis.That, in turn, has stymied efforts at economic and political reform, and convinced Brussels bureaucrats - already suffering from enlargement fatigue - that Kiev's government is far from ready for EU membership. To complete the drift back to square one, Mr Yanukovych - the man painted as the pro-Kremlin villain from the last elections - is favourite to win again this time, with or without fraud.Moscow, which viewed 2004's turmoil as a Western-inspired coup d'etat in its backyard, looks on gleefully.If it is dispiriting for the Orange Revolution's figureheads, it is even more so for its student-based grassroots support, who were originally denounced as CIA-backed subversives when they threw their weight behind Mr Yushchenko's moderate Our Ukraine party. Nazar Pervak recalls how he was shown on government television as an aggressive young rabble-rouser, causing a rift with his father, a judge."It was extremely cold, like it is out there now," said Mr Pervak, 27, sipping coffee in an Independence Square cafe. "But it was very exciting - shopkeepers gave free food and clothes, businessmen even paid for hotels for protesters who came in from outside Kiev."Today, though, I feel very disillusioned, because we didn't use the great chance we had properly. Integration with Europe did not come true either. Now Western Europe simply accepts that Ukraine is now under Russia's influence."So what went wrong? Critics pin some blame on Mr Yushchenko, who failed to use his momentum to give the Augean stables of Ukrainian politics the Herculean spring clean it needed. Parliament remains full of corrupt, criminal MPs, whose punch-ups in the chamber rival those of Ukraine's legendary boxing duo, Klitschko brothers.Thanks to constitutional wrangling and a problem with "electoral tourism", whereby politicians switch allegiances in exchange for favours, it is also hard to get much done.The Yushchenko-Tymoshenko alliance was also forged more on a mutual dislike of Moscow than on any common policies, and over time, they have even parted company on that. Ms Tymoshenko now favours patching things up with Russia, a move seen as a betrayal by Mr Yushchenko, whose relations with the Kremlin are worse than ever.In August, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev withdrew Moscow's ambassador to Kiev, accusing Mr Yushchenko of being "anti-Russian". In an echo of the Litvinenko case in Britain, Moscow also refuses to extradite a suspect in the poisoning plot who moved to Russia.Many Ukrainians also question whether Ms Tymoshenko or Mr Yushchenko really merited their Orange halos in the first place. Ms Tymoshenko, despite her pretty face, is seen as a quarrelsome opportunist, while Mr Yushchenko, although viewed as competent and honest, comes across as slightly plodding.Certainly, interviewing him is not like meeting some Eastern European Tony Blair - he is prone to monologues rather than soundbites, and reluctant to concede fault.Asked why his popularity has slipped so badly, he responds firstly by insisting that he is still going to win, and then by reciting economic growth statistics at length. When The Sunday Telegraph tries to interrupt after five minutes, he tuts and continuing regardless."Last year 23 million tourist visited Ukraine. This figure was 21 million for Turkey. One million Ukrainians travelled to Europe last year, two times more than 2007..." The list goes on and on, reminiscent - to Western ears at least - of Communist-era reports on annual tractor production.Mr Yuschchenko is also under fire for campaigns to demolish all Soviet-era monuments, and to get the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, when up ten million Ukrainians died, recognised internationally as a Stalin-sponsored genocide. Not only does it seem like a diversion from more immediate problems, it alienates some of the 20 per cent of Ukrainians who are ethnic Russians, who do not share his anomisity to Moscow anyway."The nationalist Ukrainians are trying to divide people into Ukrainian and Russian," said Viktor Knyazev, 31, an adviser in an import-export firm. "Other people died in that famine too, not just Ukrainians.""Both Stalin and Lenin were negative figures, but at least they managed to keep order," added his wife Larisa, 28, who, like her husband, wants Mr Yanukovic back in power. "Why can't we have good relations with Russia?"As things stand, the vote on January 17 is expected to end in a run-off between Mr Yanukovych and Ms Tymoshenko, heralding a gradual thaw with Moscow. Yet despite having the same old faces to vote for, the youthful Orange Revolutionaries are not entirely despondent."There is a total disbelief in these candidates," admitted former activist Dmitry Yurchenko, 27. "But the Orange Revolution did at least change attitudes to politicians - there is a free media now, and people realise they can demand things if they want."What is really needed, they argue, is for a new post-Orange Revolution generation of voters, devoid of the "Post-Soviet" mentality that does not readily question political leaders, and expects them to be omnipotent. "Once Yushchenko was in power, Ukrainians thought everything would simply change," said Mr Pervak. "They don't take responsibility themselves."Mr Yushchenko, meanwhile, may have more time to spend beekeeping, a hobby he has enjoyed since childhood. Compared with running the affairs of 47 million Ukrainians, managing the industrious populations of his hives is a relaxing task. Yet for a man who detests Stalin, it is perhaps a strange choice - after all, with their armies of loyal workers, are bees not natural communists?"No," he replies firmly. "Communists lose their ideals, they are people who bring injustice, who killed tens of millions of my people."With that, the world's only apiarist-president is off, pausing only to show an advice note from one of his junior civil servants on constitutional reform. It probably won't solve his electoral ills, but that isn't the point. In the old days, he says, no lowly functionary would dare tell the president how to do his job. "That's the Orange Revolution for you."