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Ukraine's political cat-fight leaves voters cold

Viktor Yushchenko addresses supporters (23 November 2009)
Mr Yushchenko is standing for re-election, but his support has evaporated

On 17 January, Ukrainians will vote in the first presidential election since the Orange Revolution, which raised hopes of lasting change. But five years on, the names on the ballot papers are largely the same, and the prevailing mood is one of disillusionment, says the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse.

On a wintry afternoon in November, on the anniversary of the start of the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko addressed a packed hall just a few hundred yards from Independence Square, the epicentre of the protests which brought him to power. He was trying hard to rally the crowd.

The revolution was a dream, he said - a dream of a Ukraine free from Russian influence; a Ukraine ruled not by a handful of corrupt oligarchs, but by the people themselves, dreaming of a better life.

Mr Yushchenko is standing for re-election in January. But his support has evaporated, and opinion polls suggest he has almost no chance of winning.

People queue outside a bank in Kiev
For many, in the past five years, things have got worse, not better

The financial crisis has hit Ukraine hard. Some banks have collapsed and it is not uncommon to see people queuing up outside their branches in the hope of compensation.

What most people worry about here are not rather abstract notions of relations with Moscow or membership of Nato. Their main concern is the economy. And for many, in the past five years, things have got worse, not better.

"We were hoping that at last we would be independent," said one woman in her mid-60s wearing a headscarf, standing in line outside a bank.

"Finally we thought we would get closer to Europe, to the standards of living there. But it turned out to be nothing but lies."

Another pensioner agreed: "These elections will change nothing. We need a strong leader, because everywhere you turn there's nothing but corruption, corruption and corruption."

Old power structures

On the main thoroughfare leading into Independence Square there are a few people handing out leaflets to a mostly indifferent public.

Celebrations after Viktor Yushchenko's inauguration in 2005
After the Orange Revolution the problem was... all the people from Independence Square went home
Olexiy Tolkachev

Five years ago this street was packed with hundreds of thousands of protestors, chanting slogans, braving the winter cold.

They believed that their presence could make a difference.

Olexiy Tolkachev was among them, a young activist who was involved in organising the demonstrations. Today, his mood is one of deep disappointment.

"After the Orange Revolution the problem was, Yushchenko became the president, but society, all the people from Maidan [Independence Square] they went home," he says.

Mr Tolkachev says Ukraine's new leaders have not been held to account and that while the names and the faces of those in government changed, the power structures did not.

"We didn't change the system, and Yushchenko became a part of the old system in Ukraine."

There are many who, like Mr Tolkachev, believe that all the major candidates in this election would merely perpetuate the current status quo. There is, though, a possible alternative.

'Against everyone'

Vasyl Protyvsikh is a candidate with a difference.

Vasyl Protyvsikh
We've had enough of being made fools of. All they do is make promises and promises, for years on end
Vasyl Protyvsikh

He is a pensioner from western Ukraine, and he recently changed his name.

In Ukrainian, "proty vsikh" means "against everyone" and, standing on a street corner, he is hoping that his unusual surname will appeal to the disillusioned masses.

"Every soldier should have a dream to become a general," he says.

"I can see how people are becoming more and more frustrated with those in power. We can't stand this any more! We've had enough of being made fools of. All they do is make promises and promises, for years on end."

It is a nice dream, but Mr Protyvsikh does not really stand a chance.

Russian return

One of the front-runners for 2010 is Viktor Yanukovych, the man whom Russia backed five years ago, and who eventually turned out the loser in the Orange Revolution.

Viktor Yanukovich (23 October 2009)
Viktor Yanukovych's victory in 2004 was short-lived

Today, he is trying hard to shed the image of being "Moscow's man".

At a meeting with international businessmen at the US Chamber of Commerce, he told the BBC that much had changed since 2004.

"I remain committed to a balanced policy, which will protect our national interests both on our eastern border - I mean with Russia - and of course with the European Union," he said.

"Ukraine's integration with the EU remains our strategic aim."

His nearest rival is another familiar face - Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Back in 2004, she was firmly in the Orange camp. With her trademark braids and fiery rhetoric, she was a fierce critic of Russian involvement in Ukraine. Now, though, things have changed

At a recent meeting on the thorny subject of the gas trade between Russia and Ukraine, the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, said Ms Tymoshenko was a woman he could do business with.

Vladimir Putin and Yulia Tymoshenko (19 November 2009)
Yulia Tymoshenko used to be a fierce critic of Russian involvement in Ukraine

"We are happy working with the government of Yulia Tymoshenko," he announced. "In the time we have worked together, our relations have been strengthened and become more stable."

That is probably as close as anyone is going to get to his endorsement.

Today on Independence Square, you can hardly tell there is an election coming up. There are no rallies, no tents, and certainly no crowds of protestors.

The events of the winter of 2004 seem like a very distant memory indeed.

And with both the front-runners in this presidential contest apparently acceptable to Moscow, some might be forgiven for thinking that, five years on, the Kremlin was having the last laugh.



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