NEW YORK — On a visit here for the United Nations 60th anniversary summit, a week after he fired his government, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko compared the atmosphere in Ukraine to “the spirit that comes after a big rain and thunderstorm, when you have so much fresh air that you can’t breath enough of it.”
Just one week later, there is a new storm brewing — one that threatens to flatten the existing political landscape and make Yushchenko, the hero of the "Orange Revolution," a lame-duck president.
But, for the moment, he seems to have weathered the maelstrom after securing his choice for prime minister on Thursday.
In what was said to be an effort to root out corruption and quash infighting among top leaders, Yushchenko abruptly dismissed his government on Sept. 8. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a fiery leader who played a key role in uniting demonstrators on Kiev’s Independence Square during the Orange Revolution last winter, was among those sacked.
Only a day after losing her job, Tymoshenko announced she was forming an opposition that will run against Yushchenko in Ukraine’s March 2006 parliamentary elections. Yushchenko rejected Tymoshenko's subsequent call to be reinstated as his number two, plunging Ukraine into further political chaos.
But, on Thursday, just two days after an initial ‘no’ vote, Yuri Yekhanurov, Yushchenko’s replacement for prime minister, was approved in Parliament.
Yushchenko secured Yekhanurov’s approval only after making a deal with his former Orange Revolution foe Viktor Yanukovich, who helped propel Yekhanurov over the top.
Securing the stability of a loyal prime minister was vital to Yushchenko ahead of the critical parliamentary elections coming up in March, but the threat from the opposition still exists.
"At the moment it's a very fluid situation. Yushchenko has a chance to pull something together but it will be a real test of his political skill. In the past few months he hasn't been demonstrating that skill," said Columbia University Professor Mark von Hagen.
“My fear is that Tymoshenko is a political animal, and Yushchenko isn’t,” said Taras Kuzio, a visiting professor at George Washington University. “You’ve heard of Katrina. This is ‘Hurricane Yulia.’”
An energetic orator, Tymoshenko is known for her political smarts, as well as good looks that are distinguished by her signature braided hairstyle. Forbes magazine recently ranked her third on its 100 Most Powerful Women list. Elle magazine put her on its May cover.
"Many people think Tymoshenko will win in March. She was like a mother symbol on Maidan [Independence Square]," said Ukrainian television journalist Maryana Voronovych.
Ukrainians have expressed increasing frustration at the slow pace of reforms that were promised during the Orange Revolution.
“The Orange Revolution gave the people hopes for a better life and a new relationship between citizens and authorities. Society gave a clear signal: apart from bread and butter, the people wanted a different attitude from officials, policemen, judges, and communal service,” wrote Yulia Mostovaya in a Kiev-based weekly publication, “Zerkalo Nedeli.”
There is a sense that the Orange Revolution offered an opportunity for change that was never seized upon. With little movement on the promised reforms, there is now a fear that the pervasive mistrust of government is tarnishing Yushenko’s image.
Yushchenko’s “biggest problem is that the public will come to see him like all the others,” said Kuzio. “Kuchma [the former Ukrainian president] had his oligarchs, now Yushchenko has his oligarchs. What’s changed? The people saw in Yushchenko someone who was different.”
American supporters stand by their man
Yushchenko explained why he had dismissed his government last week to a group of American based supporters at a New York event for The Orange Circle, a group dedicated to continuing the ideals of the Orange Revolution and founded by prominent democracy activist Adrian Karatnycky.
“We saw Ukraine losing momentum, we saw Ukraine’s ideals that were cherished on the Maidan [Independence Square] falling into jeopardy,” the president said.
“At the end of the day, the conflict between several government leaders could have led to a serious national crisis and conflict,” Yushchenko said “This was the way we passed the test of self-purification. We proved that we’re still responsible to the people.”
Despite the political turmoil at home, Yushchenko received a warm welcome at the Orange Circle event and maintains the support of the group’s founder, Karatnycky. "Yushchenko is that honest leader Ukraine has needed since its independence," he said.
But Kuzio from George Washington University believes that the upcoming months will be tough ones. “Many people say that he’s naïve, he’s not a hands-on leader. They say he only acts in a crisis, when it’s already too late.”
Professor Alexander Motyl, Deputy Director of the Center for Global Change and Governance at Rutgers, agrees with Kuzio. “His primary challenge is to persuade the electorate that his government is not ‘like them,’” said Motyl, referring to former President Kuchma’s regime.
Motyl went on to say that Yushchenko needs to show Ukrainians that his government “is still fully committed to the ideals of the Orange Revolution, and that it is capable of changing things for the better.”
Not ready to give up the fairy tale
Commenting on the shifting Ukrainian political landscape, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recalled a young Ukrainian girl telling him that the Orange Revolution was “like a fairy tale.”
“And I said to myself, ‘There’s a Prince Charming in it. There’s a very pretty princess in it,’” referring to Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.
Brzezinski warned, “But a fairy tale, when you wake up, can turn into a nightmare. It is terribly important to demonstrate that the Orange Revolution was not just a fairy tale.”
For now, Yushchenko is determined to hang on and his victory on Thursday shows that he has no intention of giving up easily.