In Ukraine, orange ribbons signal a desire to cut the ties with Soviet past

By MARK MacKINNON - Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 20, 2004

LVIV, UKRAINE -- Tamara Vujtusik has travelled widely enough in the European Union to know something is wrong in her native Ukraine. The orange ribbon tied to her knapsack represents her hope that it can be fixed, starting tomorrow.

Orange is the colour of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko's campaign, and this city of 800,000 people on Ukraine's western edge, just 70 kilometres from the Polish border and the European Union, is awash in it on the eve of a presidential vote that is seen as critical to the country's future.

The ribbons are tied to lampposts, strung from car antennas and worn by young and old as fashionable armbands or hair ties. Yesterday afternoon on the city's main boulevard, a group of students tied a bright orange skirt around a statue of Taras Shevchenko, the country's most famous writer.

In the first round of the election, on Oct. 31, the Western-leaning Mr. Yushchenko nudged out his main rival, Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, by the slimmest of margins, 40 per cent to 39 per cent, with both sides falling short of the majority necessary for victory in the crowded field. Each side accused the other of widespread voter intimidation and ballot-box fraud.

The first round revealed a country split in half, roughly along the line of the Dniepr River. Those to the east voted heavily for Mr. Yanukovich, who has campaigned on closer ties to Russia, while in Lviv and across western Ukraine it was a landslide for Mr. Yushchenko, who captured upward of 80 per cent of the vote in some districts.

The second-round face-off between the two men is now seen as deciding what direction Ukraine will take in the coming years: whether it will gravitate toward the EU or fall back into the Kremlin's orbit. For Ms. Vujtusik and other students at Lviv National University, it's an easy choice to make. They blame Mr. Yanukovich and outgoing President Leonid Kuchma for Ukraine's high unemployment and limits on freedom of speech.

"Definitely, it would be better for us to be in Europe. The EU has a good economy and we don't," the 18-year-old applied mathematics student said in slow, precise English. She said that Ukraine can join Europe only if Mr. Yushchenko wins the election, since the EU will never admit a country run by "criminals."

Ms. Vujtusik's friends, also decked out in orange as they gathered around her in a tight semi-circle, nodded their heads in unanimous agreement. Several complained about Russia's heavy-handed interference in the election, including a two visits by President Vladimir Putin that many saw as campaign stops for Mr. Yanukovich.

"If Yanukovich wins, Putin will treat Ukraine as a buffer between Europe and Russia," said Oksana Oreshchin, another applied math student. "We can't go back to the Soviet Union."

The tug of war for Ukraine was joined recently by the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany, who said that if the election is seen as free and fair, they will make an "extremely enticing" proposal to the new president.

The Lviv region is lost territory for Mr. Yanukovich's campaign, and its headquarters in the city was all but deserted yesterday. Staffers talked hopefully of trying to win 10 per cent of the vote by focusing their efforts on pensioners nostalgic for the Soviet era.

Lviv has long been the centre of Ukrainian nationalism and, since Soviet troops seized the region from Poland in 1939 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, of anti-Russian sentiment. It's a very different story than the pro-Russian east side of the Dniepr.

"The main problem is that democracy in the eastern part of Ukraine is not developed as much as it is here," said Roman Shust, dean of history at Lviv National University. He had a Yushchenko flag jammed into the penholder on his desk. "The majority of the people there don't identify themselves even as Russian or Ukrainian. They call themselves Soviets."

Broadcasts from Channel 5, the country's lone independent television station, are blocked in the east, Prof. Shust noted. As a result, he said, residents get distorted information about the election, particularly about a poisoning incident that hospitalized Mr. Yushchenko for three weeks in the middle of the campaign. Mr. Yushchenko's face was left seriously disfigured by what he says was an attempt to assassinate him.

Democracy may yet turn nastier in Ukraine, although such talk before the first round quickly petered out on voting day. Mr. Yushchenko has called for a "nationwide vote count" on Kiev's Independence Square tomorrow night, code for a mass rally to put pressure on the central election commission against fixing a vote the opposition leader is confident he can win fairly.

Lviv National University's halls are plastered with photographs of Mr. Yushchenko, and students talk openly of trying to bring down the regime through street demonstrations if they see tomorrow's results as falsified.

Barricades made of broken furniture have been erected in front of the university since the first-round numbers were announced, and are manned 24 hours a day by bandanna-wearing members of Pora, a youth group with ties to similar organizations that led street demonstrations that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 and Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia last year. The barricades are covered in spray-painted graffiti about the need to fight dictatorship, alongside tributes to the rap group Wu-Tang Clan and heavy rock group Iron Maiden.

"We won't let them steal the election," said Oleh, a 19-year-old economics student who declined to give his last name. He and a handful of other students have been sleeping in a tent behind the barricade for three weeks to make sure the police don't take it down. "If there's a falsification, the whole of Ukraine will be in the streets."

A friend added quietly: "We hope the East will be too."