Published: March 2006
Endangered Revolution
Ukraine's bold push for democracy stunned the world, but can it live up to its promise?
By Andrew Meier

When Viktor Yushchenko rises each dawn to begin the longest days of his life, he stares hard in the mirror. "The president doesn't recognize himself," an aide in his inner circle confides. "For him, it's impossible to square the face in the glass with the man inside. "For millions of his compatriots, however, Yushchenko's face—bloated, pockmarked, and deeply discolored—is a fitting symbol of their long-suffering land, scarred by the past yet surviving against all odds.

For years Yushchenko bided his time. Throughout the dark era of former President Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine, a nation of 46 million in a land larger than France, devolved into a fiefdom of regional clans and robber baron oligarchs. Reformers mounted feeble assaults on the halls of power, but the country was held captive by a criminal regime atop a foundering post-Soviet state. For Ukrainians who yearn to escape Russia's shadow and join the rest of Europe and the West, Yushchenko stood as the last great hope.

Then, almost on cue, came Yush- chenko's brush with death. During the tense days leading up to the 2004 presidential election, then candidate Yushchenko fell gravely ill and had to be spirited out of the country for emergency treatment. Austrian doctors discovered the cause of his near-fatal sickness: dioxin poisoning. Yushchenko survived, but with a disfigured face that fueled outrage at the old regime, believed by many to have ordered Yushchenko's assassination. Instead of killing him, however, his rivals became unwitting handmaidens of his revolution.

A declaration echoed across Ukraine in the wake of Yushchenko's ascent: Ya stoyav na Maidani! It means "I stood on the Maidan," Independence Square in the heart of Kyiv. It also means, I was there, I stood up for freedom, I have a right to expect change. During those tense wintry weeks when the old regime tried to hijack the election and the future hung in the balance, Ukrainians young and old flooded the capital, setting up a tent city on the Maidan and taking over the Kreshchatyk, Kyiv's central avenue that doubles as Ukraine's main street. For weeks the world watched the standoff, wondering if civil war would erupt between western Ukraine, Yushchenko's stronghold, and the country's eastern half, home to most of Ukraine's eight million ethnic Russians. It didn't happen. Surrounded by riot troops, the protesters stood their ground in peace. Their only weapons were banners, T-shirts, scarves, and balloons, all the same orange color. The Orange Revolution was born.

In the end the courts sided with Yushchenko, and Ukraine entered an uncharted realm of promise. Soon after his inauguration the new president embarked on a world tour. Blazing through Western capitals, Yushchenko was hailed a hero, a Slavic Nelson Mandela from the old Soviet bloc. Suddenly the elite clubs of the West —NATO and the European Union—loomed on the horizon. Kyiv, meanwhile, was buoyant with hope. For months there was heady talk of a national revival. A land that had languished so long under the rule of license stood on the cusp of a spiritual cleansing. Many Ukrainians for the first time felt proud of being Ukrainian.

By last fall, however, Yushchenko's government had imploded. Corruption charges swirled in Kyiv. Just nine months in office, the presi-dent fired his popular prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, and her cabinet. Amid the ensuing burlesque of charges and countercharges, Ukrainians once again were shaking their heads over old troubles. And many faced a new fear: The Orange Revolution, still unfinished, was now endangered.

With the approach of parliamentary elec-tions this spring, Ukraine again stands on the precipice. Will pro-reform forces overcome their infighting? Can Yushchenko, born in the east of Ukraine but driven by the aspirations of the west, bridge his nation's divisions and move it closer to integration with Europe and the West? Will efforts to weed out corruption and steer the economy toward a free market keep moving forward or stall? If progress made since protesters stormed the Maidan 15 months ago is a predictor, any push for lasting reform will have to surmount entrenched opposition.

Yushchenko was elected on a vow to clean house, and since his first weeks in office a war has raged across Ukraine, a campaign against corruption. At times the battle has threatened to spill blood; at times it has risked turning to farce. As I traveled the country the summer after Yushchenko took office, the corrupt powers that upheld the Kuchma regime were under fire in many of their old haunts. Indeed, in a corner of western Ukraine bordered by four countries—Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania—a foot soldier of the revolution had already won a battle against the regional boss.

Yuriy Rakhovsky heads up the Ministry of Internal Affairs office in Uzhhorod, a border city thick with traders and uncertain wares. Standing well over six feet tall, Rakhovsky is a dark coil of muscle and anxiety. When he speaks, in a bass staccato, jabbing the air with his forefinger, his muscles show beneath a dark blue suit. The suit is new, a concession to his recent promotion. Before the revolution Rakhovsky had worked as a detective. He had ambitions, of course, but becoming head honcho was not among them. Then he built a case against the man who had run Uzhhorod under Kuchma, Ivan Rizak. Now Rakhovsky is a very busy man.

On the day of my visit, I was kept waiting outside his office at police headquarters for four hours. When I was finally allowed in, Rakhovsky stood behind a broad desk at the far end of the long room, a cell phone pressed to an ear. Now and then he distractedly tapped a tank of tropical fish beside a bank of phones.

"A raid," he explained in short bursts of words. "Final preparations. A stolen truck. Hungarian contraband. Rounding up the whole gang." Unhooking a pair of cell phones from his belt, he placed them on the desk like a gunslinger unholstering his six-shooter at a poker table.

When I asked how he had snared a powerful figure like Rizak, Rakhovsky revealed a distaste for publicity. "That's a question for the governor, " he said, chuckling at the thought of Rizak sitting in prison a few blocks away. The "governor," as Rizak was called, stood accused of half a dozen crimes, including graft and "leading a man to suicide."That man was 61-year-old Volodymyr Slyvka, dean of Uzhhorod National University and two-time laureate of the state prize for science. Rizak, it was alleged, had pressured the dean to force the 13,000 student body to vote for Kuchma's chosen successor, Viktor Yanukovych, an ex-prime minister from the east who had served time in Soviet jails for assault.

"The dean had terrible relations with Rizak," Rakhovsky explained. "Once he was out of the way, the governor replaced him with his own man, but the students still voted for Yushchenko.”

How had the dean committed suicide? I asked. "That's the strange thing," Rakhovsky said. "No bullet, no rope. Just cuts—many, many knife cuts."According to press reports, Slyvka's wife found him in the bath, his veins cut and a kitchen knife in his chest.

Other Kuchma cronies felt the heat. His minister of transportation was found "prematurely deceased" in his dacha outside Kyiv. The former interior minister was discovered with two bullets in his head just hours before he was to have been questioned by police. Both deaths were ruled suicides, but many Ukrainians suspect the men were silenced by former associates with secrets to hide. "Suicide has become popular in our country," quipped Oleksandr Tkachenko, a Kyiv media executive. By the end of 2005, more than half a dozen key players in Kuchma's regime were in jail, exile, or graves. Dozens of lesser officials were charged in the anti-corruption drive.

Another top priority for the fledgling government has been resolving the case of Georgiy Gongadze, a 31-year-old investigative reporter whose headless corpse was discovered in 2000 in a shallow grave outside Kyiv. Gongadze had made a career raising the ire of the Kuchma regime. On secret recordings from Kuchma's office, a voice strikingly similar to the former president's tells an aide how best to get rid of the meddling journalist. Yet at the time of the 2004 presidential elections, police still had not apprehended Gongadze's killers. Worse still, his body remained unburied in a city morgue.

"Burying Gongadze is essential if we are ever to move forward," Yushchenko told a friend soon after taking office. A funeral would be a potent symbol of the new government's commitment to the rule of law. Last summer three men suspected of being the triggermen were charged with Gongadze's murder, but efforts to track down the kingpins who ordered the killing seemed to stall. As Ukraine marked the first anniversary of the Orange Revolution late last year, the investigation was still under way, and Gongadze's body was still unburied.

The headless corpse of an uncompliant reporter, the poisoned face of a presidential rival—both are appalling emblems of the former government's disregard for the rule of law, the same disregard that landed Ukraine's economy in hock to criminals. As corruption spiraled during the Kuchma years, Ukraine nearly achieved rogue state status, its president rejected at NATO confabs and its Red Army surplus turning up in unlovely corners of the world. (Cargo planes were sold to cocaine wholesalers in Colombia, for instance.) At home, meanwhile, business disputes resembled gangland warfare. Police still find victims who were disposed of behind walls and under floorboards.

Yaroslav Rushchyshyn is a survivor of those dangerous days. A 38-year-old clothing manufacturer, he launched his company, Trottola, in 1994. He remembers well the fat bribe he had to pay an official to get an export quota. He also recalls how his competitors—those "with connections in Kyiv”—received shipments of Chinese-made suits virtually duty-free by declaring their value to be a ludicrous 17 cents apiece. "How could I compete?" Rushchyshyn exclaimed. An ardent supporter of the Orange Revolution, he is grateful to the new president for closing old loopholes.

From the outside, Rushchyshyn's factory reminded me of the grim textile mills that a hundred years ago lined the industrial Northeast corridor of America, sweatshops where women and children once toiled under cruel conditions. Inside, however, a new ventilation system pumped cool, filtered air to women tending sewing machines beneath fluorescent lights, their workstations adorned with orange pennants. "I care about their health," Rushchyshyn said, proudly displaying a certificate awarded by a team of human rights inspectors from the European Union.

Ten countries—eight from the old Soviet bloc—were admitted to the EU in 2004, bringing higher wages and better benefits to their workers. As a result, "Ukraine became Europe's sewing machine," Rushchyshyn said. "We're selling cheap labor." Rushchyshyn employs 2,000 workers, most of whom average 120 dollars a month in wages, up from four dollars a month when he founded the company 12 years ago. Of the quarter million blouses, dresses, and trousers his employees produce each month, virtually every item is shipped out of Ukraine and sold to European consumers under English, French, and Swedish brand names. Rushchyshyn would prefer to make Ukrainian clothes for Ukrainians, "but that's a dream for tomorrow," he says. "The revolution has taught us to like things Ukrainian, but today there is no market in Ukraine, only in Europe. It doesn't make me happy, but that's the reality."

Another unhappy reality facing Ukraine is the outflow of its human capital. Millions of Ukrainians—seven million was one estimate I was given, although no one keeps exact figures—have gone abroad in search of a living since the Soviet Union dissolved. One migrant, a nurse by training, reported earning far more money picking olives in Portugal than providing medical care in Ukraine. Such imbalances fuel the flight of workers to other countries. "We can't stop it," a government adviser admitted. "Too many families survive on the money sent home."

Like foreign workers the world over, Ukrainian migrants often fill menial jobs: farm laborer, dishwasher, housekeeper, child care provider. And like other economic refugees far from home, some fall prey to exploitation.

At the Kyiv office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Oksana Horbunova detailed case after case in which Ukrainian women were enticed overseas by promises of glamorous careers modeling and dancing, only to be ensnared in the sex industry. Other victims were forced to work in factories and on farms, even beg on the streets.

The IOM runs a rehabilitation center in Kyiv where psychiatrists, nurses, and social workers have ministered to more than 650 women and children over the past five years. Contrary to common notions, most victims were not naive farm girls with little education. The majority came from urban areas, and one in five had earned a university degree. The youngest victim was age 3, the oldest 62.

Stanching the outflow of its citizens is vital to Ukraine's future, and not just for humanitarian reasons. Ukraine suffers the lowest birthrate in Europe. With deaths outpacing births by a factor of two, the current population of 46 million is projected to drop by as much as 40 percent by 2050. Old plagues such as alcoholism and smoking, as well as new challenges such as drug-resistant tuberculosis, loom large.

But HIV/AIDS casts the darkest specter. In 1994 there were 223 registered cases of HIV in Ukraine. By 2003 the number exceeded 68,000. The actual number may be more than 600,000, surpassing prevalence rates in India, China, and the rest of Europe. By 2016 as many as 2.1 million Ukrainians will die of AIDS and AIDS-related disease. Beyond the human cost, the epidemic will tax the economy. By 2010, analysts fear, HIV/AIDS could consume half of the Ministry of Health's budget. The toll is certain to affect Ukraine's productivity, warns the World Bank, with economic growth rates declining by as much as one percent a year.

If yushchenko is to get the economy off life support and revive it for the 21st century, he will need to rein in the small circle of oligarchs who grew preposterously rich during the great grab of the Kuchma era. Among these privileged few, 39-year-old Rinat Akhmetov—by most reckonings Ukraine's richest man—stands apart. The son of a coal miner, Akhmetov is spoken of with fear in Kyiv and reverence in his home region of the Donets Basin, or Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. He rules over System Capital Management (SCM), a vast conglomerate that includes holdings in heavy industries, power plants, media companies, breweries, a soccer team, and Ukraine's glitziest hotel, the Donbass Palace.

The Palace is a temple to the new times, a citadel of marble and smoked glass in the heart of Donetsk, capital of Ukraine's black-collar coal-mining region. One morning last summer, the Palace was abuzz with activity. Young businessmen and women in pinstripes and pantsuits rushed through its gilded foyer clutching briefcases, headed, it seemed, for urgent appointments with strategic investors. Lissome young Ukrainian women in Italian stilettos glided across the marble, floating toward the boutiques nearby. In a plush lounge, a fountain of molten chocolate gurgled beneath a chandelier, while a pianist in tails played ballads on a white baby grand. Everything about the Palace announced it as a rare crossroads of culture and business, efficiency and success.

The tableau, however, was a facade, a set for a TV commercial ordered up by Akhmetov, who just days before had been "invited" in for questioning by the police. The ad was part of a broader public relations strategy to improve the oligarch's image. Akhmetov was suddenly eager to embrace the revolution, the West, and Wall Street. When the ad aired across Ukraine and Europe, the letters SCM were emblazoned in revolutionary orange.

To true supporters of the revolution, Akhmetov is a poster boy for the rigged privatization deals that handed insiders control of many of Ukraine's fattest enterprises for a song. Just months before the 2004 election, Akhmetov and his erstwhile partner, Viktor Pinchuk—the son-in-law of then president Kuchma—won control of the massive Kryvorizhstal steelworks for a mere 800 million dollars. Foreign bidders had offered much more for the mill, one of the world's largest and most profitable. Within weeks of coming to power, Yushchenko's government announced its intention to resell the mill, this time for its market value. Last October the world's largest steel company, Mittal, purchased the plant for 4.8 billion dollars at an auction witnessed on television by millions of Ukrainians. That single transaction boosted foreign investment in Ukraine by 50 percent.

Akhmetov may have lost his biggest prize, but he also struck a deal with the new powers in Kyiv that allows him to retain control over much of his empire. And late last year he announced his intention to run for parliament in the upcoming election, a bid some think he could win.

Always a proud and fiercely defiant region, Donetsk stands squarely behind its oligarch—and against Yushchenko and his westernizing agenda. At the Zasyadko coal mine, one of 114 active mines in the Donets Basin, I met 29-year-old Oleg, who has spent most of the past five years underground. His face was pallid, the rings circling his red eyes as dark as eyeliner. As a kid Oleg had no intention of following his father and grandfather into the mines. But, he says, he had no choice but to go "down there."

Ukraine's mines are among the most lethal in the world. More than 4,300 miners have died since the fall of the Soviet Union, after which state funding withered and safety along with it. Oleg knew the numbers well. He had nearly been among the dead in 2001 when a methane blast ripped through the Zasyadko mine, killing 55 of his fellow workers. "I was down there with them,"he said. "Lucky, I guess."

Oleg had no interest in national politics and no faith in the new government. In a voice so soft I had to lean in to hear him, he said he wanted only to work and make what passes for a living in these parts.

"If the mine is in the government's hands, there's no order, only chaos," he said. After the miseries of the Kuchma era, it made little sense to believe the government, let alone fight for the survival of the revolution. He had no love for the oligarchs, but at least they kept the mines open. Like many in eastern Ukraine, Oleg had staked his future on the discomfiting trade-off so prevalent across the former Soviet lands—stability for freedom.

Nostalgia for Soviet stability runs deep in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, a belching swath of pipe factories and old missile plants cleft by the meandering Dnipro River. I spent two nights here in an aging brick and concrete apartment tower overlooking the Dnipro, a tired guest in the welcome clutches of Galina Mikhailovna Matsygailo. A robust widow of 68, Galina wore a blue cotton blouse dotted with white seashells, her gray hair pulled back tight. With her homemade vodka and salo—a Ukrainian staple that is nothing but pork fat—she nearly killed me with hospitality.

Galina had just retired from what she called her "capitalist career," part-time work in a travel agency run by an émigré. But it was her long career under communism that she recalled with pleasure and pride. For 18 years she had worked in state agriculture as an "incubator,"hatching chickens, geese, and turkeys and flying them by helicopter to state farms across eastern Ukraine. Stocking the farms was hard work, but vital. They would incubate more than a million birds a season, she said. And today? I asked. "Not a single one. The system's destroyed."

The 11th of each month is pension day, and it was then that I met Lidia Ivanovna Neskoromnaya, Galina's good friend who lives on the same floor. A state courier not much younger than the two women had delivered the pensions, and Lidia had rushed over, barefoot and wearing a sky blue apron, to collect her stack of hryvnias—thin banknotes she counted with care after wiping her hands of cooking grease. Lidia receives 371 hryvnias, Galina 415—about $74 and $83 respectively. Both also get the "Yushchenko bonus," three dollars added since the revolution as a hedge against inflation.

Lidia had worked 38 years at Yuzhmash, the missile factory on the outskirts of town that Kuchma had once run, back in the days when it employed 50,000 workers and churned out the SS-20s the Soviets aimed at the West. As the two women spoke of the past, their eyes grew moist. Lidia remembered the days when Yuzhmash had "orders from all across the U.S.S.R. and abroad."Galina recalled the barges that used to crowd the Dnipro, and the music that flowed from the tourist boats up to her narrow balcony.

The two friends chatted amiably until the talk turned to events in Kyiv. Their building has 84 apartments, but few of the residents had voted for Yushchenko. "Only three were willing to admit it," said Galina, who had cast one of the votes. As she spoke of her hopes for the revolution, Lidia tightened her round face and screwed up her eyes. She could not brook any talk of a new order. She had no illusions about Kuchma, for long ago she and her husband had worked beside him. ("Kuchma destroyed the factory," she said, "and then he destroyed the country.”) But Lidia had no love for "the changes."

"You have to know the history," she said. "There are fault lines. Ukraine was never a uni-fied country. The east has always been closer to Russia. We've always looked to Moscow, and the west to Europe."

Ukraine's cultural schizophrenia has roots deep in its tortured past, which spans more than a thousand years of bloodshed, foreign domination, and internal divisions. In the tenth century Kyiv was at the center of the first Slavic state, Kyivan Rus, the birthplace of both Ukraine and Russia. Then came Tartar invaders from the east, followed by Polish and Lithuanian armies from the west. For part of the 18th century and all of the 19th, Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian Empire. The 20th century was the most brutal of all, with two famines that killed more than eight million Ukrainians, and two World Wars in which seven to eight million more died. By the 1950s Soviet power had broken the peasantry's back, Russified Ukrainian culture, and buried its ancient heritage. The Soviets' final insult was the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, whose death toll still mounts.

In geographic terms, Ukraine straddles the heart of Europe, but in every other register it remains torn between East and West. The westernmost part of the country became part of Soviet Ukraine only when the U.S.S.R. expanded in the wake of World War II. Differences in language (learning Russian was mandatory under the Soviets, but no longer), religion (western Ukraine is mostly Catholic while the east is largely Orthodox), and opportunity are legacies of history that will prove hard to overcome.

In the cobblestone heart of Lviv, I found myself surrounded by the spirits of dead empires. Lviv dates from the 13th century and was at various points in its misshapen history Austro-Hungarian, Polish, and German. The Nazi-Soviet deal known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact handed it to the U.S.S.R. in 1939.

Lviv lies in the heart of the Orange Zone, home of Yushchenko's most devout electorate. Even after decades of Soviet repression, Lviv and the surrounding region remain largely and fervently Catholic. The villages that dot the rutted roads along the nearby Polish border are dominated by crosses. No matter how small, each village has at least two outsize churches.

Stepan Kurpil and his wife, Natalya Balyuk, both newspaper editors, mirror the regional sensibility. She grew up in a Russian-speaking home, but she is proud to announce that their ten-year-old daughter, Yulia, learns German and English, "but not Russian."

Traversing the country for a month, I heard Ukrainians speak of their famous divide. Both west and east blame the other for the nation's failings. In a factory where Ukrainians now assemble Czech-made Skoda cars, the manager had made an absurd claim: "Only western Ukrainians could become European workers. "Weeks later in Donetsk, a demure 24-year-old woman studying Japanese and English had declared with a straight face, "In western Ukraine people are just different—genetically." Her comment wasn't meant as a compliment.

Yet in both the east and the west I also heard the same woes from men and women who, like so many of their compatriots, knew no luxuries but time. I heard them mourn the past and fear what lay ahead. On the night train to Odesa, I overheard two women wonder how their president looked. "Stronger," they agreed, whispering about his poisoned face. And in Kyiv I sat with one of Ukraine's first dissidents, Evhen Sverstjuk, who served 12 years in Soviet jails and exile. "We're facing an unknown," worried the philosopher, who at 77 still edits a small religious paper. "We're an independent country at last, but where are we going in this new century? What are we carrying with us? What lessons?"

Those questions, and many others, still linger. But so do the hopeful words of a young member of the revolutionary army who had joined in the protest on the Maidan, Independence Square. Like many young Ukrainians east and west, Andriy Shevtsiv enjoys a blissful distance from the Soviet past that still haunts Evhen Sverstjuk's generation. Only 19 years old, with hair that drapes his shoulder, Andriy seemed too young to help build a new democracy. But as we spoke—he groping for words in Russian, which he rarely speaks now—I felt the same mixture of relief, wonder, and fear that had flooded the country in the revolution's first triumphant hours.

"Every revolution gets exploited," Andriy said with unexpected wisdom. "But don't worry. The Maidan remains in our hearts."