Orange legacy still stalks Ukraine

The mid-2000s rule of Ukraine’s Orange coalition was among the stormiest and most divisive in the post-Soviet space. The arrival of centrist President Yanukovich last year was to end all that, yet the legacy of instability still stalks Ukraine.

­The era of the Orange leadership in Kiev was marked by protests and clashes on the streets, matched only by brawls inside the Ukrainian parliament.

So when moderate centrist Viktor Yanukovich was elected president last year, it brought hopes of a period of calm in the country.  It seems time has proven, though, that the Orange legacy might not be easy to overcome.

History appears to be repeating itself in Ukraine – its people share the belief of a previous generation that  the government is not working in its interests.

For many, it all started with one man. His name – Viktor Yushchenko.

Fist-fights in parliament, mass street protests and disruption to gas supplies to Europe were a regular feature of his term as president, and kept Ukraine firmly in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The international press pack spent many a sleepless night reporting on the rollercoaster events in the country and journalist Dmitry Vydrin even published a book poking fun at the major political players.

“Those times were extremely fun for the media. The regime used the media as a drug for society. If you do that, though, you have to raise the dose every year,” remembers Vydrin. “It is fun to watch when the temperature rises in politics; but for society, it is bad. There is a limit to all this wildness, after which society goes mad. With Yushenko, we surely reached this goal.”

Many now say it was the mess presided over by Yushchenko which helped Yanukovich sweep to power. And many felt his arrival would bring a breath of fresh air.

Centralizing power and stabilizing the economy were Viktor Yanukovich’s top priorities when he became President of Ukraine. For more than a year, it had been relatively quiet here. But the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, 14 months into Yanukovich’s presidency, propelled the country back into the world headlines.

The culmination of her trial for exceeding her authority while prime minister shocked many. Hardly anyone expected Tymoshenko to land such a harsh sentence: seven years behind bars.

­On Friday it was revealed that she now faces new criminal charges, this time – of tax avoidance. It relates to when she was leading one of the country’s biggest energy corporations back in the 1990s.

“I want to point out that Stalinist times with their oppressions have returned to Ukraine with this verdict. I’m appealing to all the patriots of Ukraine – defend Ukraine from the authoritarian regime,” Yulia Tymoshenko declared, after the hearing the judge’s verdict.

While the so-called Joan of Arc of Ukrainian politics invoked the Soviet terror inside the court room, her seething supporters clashed with police outside. Days later, veterans of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe clear-up stormed the parliament, demanding a rise in their ridiculously low pensions. They demolished everything in their path, attacking the police with blunt weapons. A social unrest grew, fear stalked the country’s president.

“Law enforcement agencies tell me that people are buying firearms. And that they are planning attacks on state bodies nationwide. People have completely lost their shame,” Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich exclaimed. 

Observers say calm may return to Ukraine – for a while, at least. But with the Euro 2012 Football Championship and a crucial parliamentary election looming, the heat of scandal will almost certainly boost the political temperature again next year.