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BRAMA, Jan 23, 2005, 11:00 am ET


Viktor victorious - at last
By Hanya Krill

Photo by Valeriy Solovyov
President Viktor Yushchenko took the oath of office in the Verkhovna Rada, January 23, 2005

Viktor Yushchenko is victorious - at last. Ukraine has a new president. January 23, 2005 marks the day that will go down in history as the first day of a renewed, democratic Ukraine in the 21st century. Though its path going into the future is not written in stone, its direction is clear.

This was not the case one year ago.

On Martin Luther King Day last year, I bemoaned the policies of the Kuchma regime (see Thoughts of liberation on Martin Luther King Day). What the former president called a "multi-vectored" policy with a European choice was little more than a thinly veiled disguise for the old "single-vectored" relationship with Russia. Ukraine's long history of oppression by its neighbor to the north was transformed into a de facto modern-day colonialism as the country's leader deferred to his counterpart in Russia in all decisions of consequence. At home, Kuchma's policies deliberately served to divide Ukraine. Abroad, Ukraine's reputation was sullied by allegations of presidential implication in mysterious deaths, media repression, and political maneuvering to recreate an authoritarian state.

"Free at last, free at last.
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

– Martin Luther King
28 August 1963, quoting an old negro spiritual in his I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.

Ukraine needed a dream. Ukrainians hungered for a new leader, one who would serve as inspiration to take the country back in time to a point in history where the ex-Soviet republics were able to choose a more democratic path. A leader such as Martin Luther King, whose ideas brought an entire nation out of its apathetic acceptance of bigotry to a recognition of its mistakes and a passion for correcting them through enforceable civil rights legislation. Ukraine needed someone who could steer it back on course towards sovereignty and democracy and give it a national idea that would help propel it into a hopeful and prosperous future.

By January 2004 Viktor Yushchenko had already taken on a lead role as head of the opposition bloc "Our Ukraine." But his emergence as the man who would bring Ukraine to its turning point - the Orange Revolution - was yet to happen. Some believe that this moment came only after the poisoning episode in the fall, which had a profound effect on Yushchenko and all Ukrainians in understanding how poisoned Ukraine itself had become. The event electrified Ukraine, and suddenly Yushchenko was seen in a new light. Having survived the apparent attempt (or attempts) on his life, Yushchenko returned to the campaign trail with renewed vigor and an important message that resonated deeply with Ukrainians. Like Martin Luther King who sought basic civil rights for his people, Viktor Yushchenko laid out his mission to attain the rights deserved by the citizens of Ukraine:

  • The right to a society free of corruption
  • The right to a democratic form of government
  • The right to a European choice
  • The right to a free market economy
  • The right to a national identity

    This clarity of purpose was the fuel needed to feed the rebellious spirit that later sparked the voter protest, igniting into a revolution nearly overnight.

    "Brama-tnyk" Viktor Yushchenko with the author (left), Washington DC, Feb. 6, 2003.

    Ukraine had found its "King" - at last.

    Now, the euphoria of the successful - not to mention incredibly peaceful - revolution can be filed away with our digital photo albums as we all return to harsh political realities. Will the dream of a corruption-free and democratic Ukraine be fulfilled?

    Yushchenko's first steps are indicators of what dreams his administration expects to achieve. One of the main long term expectations is entry into the European Union as promised during the presidential race. In the short term, practically the first order of business (also pledged during the campaign) has already drawn criticism from among Yushchenko's supporters - the first official visit will be to Russia, and it is scheduled just one day after the inauguration.

    The trip may be ill-timed in the eyes of those who hoped to steer Ukraine way from the pro-Kremlin vision of the new president's predecessor (and his opponent in the bitter campaign, Viktor Yanukovych). However, it should surprise no one that he is heading to Moscow sooner rather than later to mend fences. Animosity between Ukraine and Russia festered throughout the presidential campaign, and it is politically expedient for the new president to address the widened fissure and try to bring relations back to a friendly status quickly. Hopefully, though, not as close as they once were.

    What is important is how that first meeting will be characterized and remembered.

    In 1991, Leonid Kravchuk, the president of Ukraine who remained in the position after the breakup of the Soviet Union, took a translator with him on his first official visit to Moscow. Kravchuk speaks fluent Russian. The choice to speak in the official state language (Ukrainian) was a powerful symbol of Ukraine's independence. Advocates of independent Ukraine and a Ukrainian national idea the world over applauded the apparent slap in the face of the Kremlin.

    Victor Yushchenko, too, speaks Russian fluently. But what symbolic action - if any - he intends to take during his first meeting at the Kremlin remains to be seen. The language used may not be nearly as important as the words that are spoken. The essential point is that the encounter not be perceived as paying homage to Ukraine's former master, but only as an affirmation of mutual respect and a herald of the good neighborly relations that are to come.

    For today, however, the specter of tomorrow can be set aside. Ukraine has a new popularly elected president, and the magnificent moment is being celebrated in Ukraine and by Ukrainians around the world.

    Addressing some 300,000 supporters on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) this morning, President Viktor Yushchenko promised change, democracy, and honesty. He called for national unity, saying "one flag unites us all living in the east, west, north and south We are turning a new page in history. It will be beautiful!"

    Bravo to President Viktor Yushchenko! Kudos to all Ukrainians who went to Maidan, and let's not forget all those who supported the demonstrators or stayed up nights looking for news and exchanged information both in Ukraine and in the Diaspora. My Razom! Slava Ukrayini!

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