Until recently, most people regarded Ukraine as an international backwater, not a beacon of freedom for the new Europe. But that changed last November, when the world watched transfixed as opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko led a peaceful revolution. Backed by millions of protesters in Kiev and other cities who braved subzero temperatures to defend their right to a free election, he forced the government to hold a repeat ballot -- and won by a wide margin. In the process, Yushchenko, now President of Ukraine, has become a revolutionary leader in the tradition of Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and more recently, Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili.
Six months later, Ukrainians are putting the revolution behind them and picking up the pieces of their everyday lives. Some are disappointed that change isn't coming as fast as they expected. But overall most Ukrainians are feeling pretty positive about the future: Consumer confidence reached an all-time high in the first quarter of the year, and 54% of the population approves of the new government's agenda, vs. 17% who don't, according to an April poll by Democratic Initiatives Foundation. "I still have high hopes that the new team will come through with the reforms they promised, though it's becoming clear that the process will be difficult," says Fedir, a café owner in Kiev.
In the larger world the movement Yushchenko launched, dubbed the Orange Revolution after the color worn by his supporters, has shaken up political agendas from Brussels to Moscow. It showed that a decade and a half after the end of the cold war, Europe is not doomed to a new continental divide that would abandon Ukraine and the other states of the old Soviet Union to authoritarian systems characterized by rigged elections and political intimidation. "Free and fair elections have brought a new generation of politicians to power, not encumbered with the mentality of the Soviet past," Yushchenko told the U.S. Congress on Apr. 6.
Yushchenko, 51, has made membership in the European Union a central plank of his political agenda, forcing the EU to redefine its policy toward the former Soviet states. His victory has strengthened the hand of new EU members in central and eastern Europe, led by Poland, that favor eventual expansion of the EU farther to the east. In the former Soviet states the Ukrainian revolution has been a bombshell. It has inspired a copy-cat uprising in Kyrgyzstan, where autocratic ruler Askar Akayev was toppled in April. In Russia the Orange Revolution has starkly exposed the limits of "managed democracy," leading to intense speculation about possible upheavals in 2008, when President Vladimir V. Putin is due to step down.
The long-term effects may turn out to be even more significant. If Yushchenko succeeds in turning Ukraine into a European-style democracy, it will set a hugely positive example for all the states in the region, particularly Russia. It's too early to say whether hopes of radical reform in Ukraine will be fulfilled. But Yushchenko has made early symbolic moves, such as replacing 18,000 state officials to show his determination to reform the bureaucracy. And he has begun to expose the massive corruption of the previous regime, moving to revise the results of controversial privatizations. There's a danger that this drive could turn into a crude settling of scores with his political enemies. But Yushchenko says the review will revisit only the most notorious cases and promises that new sales will be open to foreigners.
The new President's worldview is shaped by deep personal convictions. "The main driving force behind him is his patriotism and strong faith in God, which he got from his parents," says Kateryna Chumachenko, Yushchenko's American-born wife. "Their upbringing made him a strong believer in the battle of good vs. evil." Yushchenko's father survived Auschwitz and refused to join the Communist Party when he returned to Soviet Ukraine. The lack of a party card limited his career opportunities, and he became a village schoolteacher. Like his father, Yushchenko has had to pay a price for his beliefs. Once admired for his rugged good looks, he was permanently disfigured by an attempt to poison him during last year's election campaign.
His early career hardly suggested a revolutionary hero in the making. Trained as an agricultural accountant, he worked his way up through the USSR State Bank, becoming governor of Ukraine's National Bank in 1993. His financial skills came to the fore in 1998 when he stewarded the Ukrainian currency through the devastating Russian financial crisis. That success led to his appointment as Prime Minister in 1999. Yushchenko's market-based reforms kick-started a boom that has continued ever since.
Despite these achievements, Yushchenko was forced out of office in April, 2001, when his rising popularity made him a threat to President Leonid Kuchma and the clan of businessmen around him. Many doubted that the mild-mannered banker had what it takes to stage a comeback in the dirty and often violent world of Ukrainian politics. But Yushchenko's dismissal only boosted his popularity, enabling him to unite the fractious opposition and turning him into a hero to the many Ukrainians who were fed up with corruption and the country's growing political repression.
The rest, as they say, is history.
By Jason Bush and Roman Olearchyk