KIEV, Ukraine -- The 2004 Revolution was the worst defeat of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s decade in power after he congratulated the victorious pro-Kremlin candidate before an uprising and court order annulled the rigged vote.
Now, in a stunning turnaround, Victor Yanukovich, the same Moscow-leaning candidate accused of rigging the elections in 2004, won the first round of presidential elections last Sunday and will be favorite in the run-off.Yanukovich’s second round opponent, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, may be an Orange veteran but she has struck a pragmatic tone on Kremlin ties and above all built up a strong relationship with the ever-important Putin.Meanwhile, the political career of the Orange Revolution’s defeated hero, President Victor Yushchenko, who dreamed of turning Ukraine away from Russia towards EU and NATO membership, appears to have sustained a terminal blow.“There are not too many differences between Yanukovich and Tymoshenko” on foreign policy, commented Nico Lange, director of the Ukraine program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kiev.“Russia can live with both of them very well”.While both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich have set joining the EU as a policy goal, neither shares Yushchenko’s enthusiasm for bringing Ukraine into NATO, a move some analysts warned risked causing a military conflict with Russia.Ksenia Lyapina, an MP close to Yushchenko, grimly acknowledged: “Moscow has won. They can be congratulated”.By contrast, Sergei Markov, a Russian MP from the pro-Putin United Russia party, could not disguise his glee. “Russia has won. The Orange Revolution and the politics of de-Russification of Ukraine have been discredited”.As well as his aim of permanently extracting Ukraine from Russia’s orbit, also in tatters is Yushchenko’s program of pushing the country to EU membership with an ambitious program of domestic reform.Many of the thousands from all over the country who in 2004 poured into Kiev’s Independence Square -- universally known as the Maidan -- to support the Yushchenko cause have been left feeling painfully betrayed.Despite their promises, the Orange leaders failed to end corruption, reform Ukraine’s creaking justice system or crack down on the oligarchs. Instead, they became embroiled in damaging internal struggles.“I don’t like the way the Orange leaders squabbled and Yushchenko betrayed the Maidan”, said Maria Petriv, 45, an accountant from the western city of Lviv.“What happened to his 10 steps for the people? What happened to putting the bandits in jail”?Yet for all the election day despondency, the Orange Revolution led to changes in Ukraine that are almost unique in the former Soviet Union.The country now boasts a vibrant media of websites, news magazines and political talk shows unafraid of touching on the most delicate of issues, in contrast to the turgid scene that existed before.In its latest report on global freedoms, Freedom House rated Ukraine as the only free country in the former Soviet Union, excluding the Baltic states. Russia remained stuck in the section for nations deemed not free.In rare praise for any election in an ex-Soviet state, Western observers led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe hailed the first round a “high quality” poll that largely met democratic standards.Ukraine also has a major opportunity in hosting the 2012 European football championships jointly with Poland, a unique chance for the country to showcase its identity and cities to the world.“There are achievements that are irreversible”, said Lange of the Adenauer Foundation. “But it’s an evolutionary process, not revolutionary. The problem with the Orange Revolution was that the expectations inside and outside Ukraine were far too high”, he said.