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Nearly 8 Years After the ‘Orange Revolution,’ Ukraine Runs Into Reversals

May 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Special correspondent Kira Kay explores lessons being learned about fulfilling the promises of the 2004 revolution in Ukraine. It's part of a partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the first of two stories from the Eastern European nation of Ukraine, where a dramatic revolution took place nearly eight years ago, but has since run into reversals.

Special correspondent Kira Kay has our report.

KIRA KAY: Independence Square in the heart of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, doesn’t today look like the setting of some of the greatest political turmoil of the new century.

But, in the winter of 2004, this was the stage of a popular uprising that rivals what we have seen in the Middle East in recent months, a corrupt government defeated, the people’s will triumphant.

But now, almost eight years later, Ukraine offers a cautionary tale for those protesters in Cairo and Tunis. The country is once again facing fears of rising authoritarianism, with human rights alerts being sounded by the U.S. State Department and global watchdogs like Freedom House. Democracy-building is harder than it looks.

It was called the Orange Revolution, named for the campaign color of opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko and his coalition ally, Yulia Tymoshenko.

YULIA TYMOSHENKO, former prime minister, Ukraine (through translator): It was a big victory for the people who came out to the square. They came out because they wanted freedom and a better future. They had faith, and they actually changed Ukraine.

KIRA KAY: In 2004, Ukrainian voters chose opposition leader Yushchenko for president. And when the ruling party fraudulently declared their candidate the winner, the people took to the streets.

INNA SOVSUN, Ukraine: It felt like you have to do this. There was no other way. I mean, all my friends, all my family was there.

KIRA KAY: Inna Sovsun was only 19 when she joined as many as half-a-million other people in 17 days of protest, until the Supreme Court ordered a revote.

In early 2005, Viktor Yushchenko was sworn in as president, and chose Yulia Tymoshenko as his prime minister.

Did things turn out the way you had hoped they would?

INNA SOVSUN: Well we did get a new president, which is an accomplishment in a way, and which is something nobody would believe we would do. The thing is that one person kind of changed the whole country.

OLEH RYBACHUK, aide to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko: There was enormous opportunity, specifically in the first year of Yushchenko’s presidency, enormous, enormous opportunity, because there was such a big level of trust on part of people.

KIRA KAY: Oleh Rybachuk was President Yushchenko’s first chief of staff. But he quit, frustrated, after just six months, as the Orange government fell into very public squabbling and failed to deliver on its promises.

OLEH RYBACHUK: There were more freedoms, yes. There were less controls, yes. But there were no democracy in institutional form. Courts had been neglected. We didn’t pass to the parliament major democratic laws. The Soviet-trained, Soviet-prepared bureaucracy remained in power.

KIRA KAY: By the 2010 presidential election, Ukrainians had become so disappointed in their Orange Revolution leadership that incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko received just 5 percent of the vote in his bid for reelection.

The winner of that election? Viktor Yanukovych, the very candidate accused of trying to steal the 2004 vote that had set off the Orange Revolution protests. Yanukovych has wasted little time.

VIKTOR YANUKOVYCH, Ukrainian president (through translator): Last year, we started reforms in various areas, judicial, regulatory, governance, education and health care.

KIRA KAY: He has healed ties with neighboring Russia. And he has declared his major goal to be creating order out of the chaos left by his predecessors. But Oleh Rybachuk says this stronger control comes at a price.

OLEH RYBACHUK: The new government came to power. They consolidated all power, ignoring constitution, not carrying checks and balances. So they have central government. They have all cabinet of ministers under their control. They control Parliament.

Now they made so-called legal reform where, as the result of which, they totally control court, constitutional court, supreme court. Most Ukrainians, absolute majority of people, would say that there is a backslide of democracy. And this is felt in the air.

JOHN TEFFT, United States ambassador to Ukraine: Over the last year, it’s — a couple of the things that they have done here, we have felt, have been steps backward.

KIRA KAY: U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft says there’s been cooperation with the Yanukovych government on business investment, agricultural development and securing Ukraine’s weapons of mass destruction.

But the U.S. worries.

JOHN TEFFT: We have been concerned about the local elections last year, which I think most observers felt didn’t meet the kind of standards that, frankly, the government, the president himself had set for them. We have been concerned about freedom of the media and efforts that have been made to intimidate or otherwise pressure members of the media.

KIRA KAY: Most worrying are government prosecutions of prominent members of the opposition.

Former Prime Minister Tymoshenko faces various charges alleging misuse of government funds and resources.

We sat down with her minutes after she had left the prosecutor’s office for her 30th visit.

YULIA TYMOSHENKO (through translator): The current president is doing his best to eliminate real political competition and dominate Ukraine, not through sound policy, reforms, democracy, and real leadership, but, like in Stalinist times, by sending the opposition into prison and exile.

KIRA KAY: Tymoshenko’s former economy minister was recently granted political asylum in the Czech Republic. Her interior minister sits in jail, awaiting his trial.

JOHN TEFFT: The vast majority of these officials who are being investigated were part of the party — were members of the party of Yulia Tymoshenko. In fact, at one point, it was something like 18 out of 20.

And so our concern wasn’t to intervene in the specific cases, but to say, come on, this is not right that you — under the guise of fighting corruption, that you — that you go after and criticize or try to punish just one political party.

KIRA KAY: But Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko insists these prosecutions are a top priority.

KOSTYANTYN GRYSHCHENKO, Ukrainian foreign minister: Where do you start? You start with the taxi driver, or you start with the highest level of government? You do it to towards those who have just started or those who had five years in office and whose activities have led to a major, major losses to both the government budget, but also to these ethical standards that the country needs to live by.

KIRA KAY: Gryshchenko disputes any democratic backsliding.

KOSTYANTYN GRYSHCHENKO: I don’t believe that we have any authoritarian measures introduced in this country. We have simply introduced the policy that was expected by society for a long time. And based on the mandate that both the president and his political force received through elections, we are doing what the people of Ukraine wants us to do.

KIRA KAY: That argument resonates at a recent commemoration marking the southern city of Odessa’s victory in World War II. This region delivered Yanukovych 75 percent of its votes in the 2010 presidential election.

These women told me the country needs a strong hand. This man says Yanukovych will reform Ukraine if given a chance. And even this young Tymoshenko supporter is open-minded.

ARTUR KIREDZIAN, Ukraine: Economic freedom in our country is, sadly, bad. It’s very low. And we hope that a new president, a new government will give us that freedom.

KIRA KAY: But back in Kiev’s central market, concerns remain.

INNA SATSYUK, Ukraine: What we felt like a year before, it was like kind of a freedom. And now it’s just something appearing here, something there, you know, some flashes of information or something which is — which is scary sometimes.

KIRA KAY: From the failings of the Orange government and the subsequent return of authoritarian concerns comes a warning for current activists in the Middle East.

OLEH RYBACHUK: It’s not enough to go into the street and to demand that somebody be removed. It’s much easier to get somebody removed than to get somebody who will construct something. And this is Ukrainian lesson nowadays, because, if there’s no delivery, big disappointment comes.

KIRA KAY: Back in Independence Square, Inna Sovsun agrees and says she and her friends are returning to activism.

INNA SOVSUN: In order to change, to really change something, it does take effort of lots of people. And it’s not like you have to just to go to the streets, and for a few weeks, and spend time on the streets for a few weeks. You have to keep on fighting after that as well.

KIRA KAY: The spirit of 2004 can still be seen in smaller, more targeted rallies, like this one against urban development and corruption, young activists hoping they will bring longer-lasting change to their country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight’s report is part of our partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting. Kira Kay’s next story looks at the HIV epidemic in Ukraine, which has the highest rate of the disease in Europe.