Addressing a cheering, 100,000-strong crowd in capital Kiev’s central Independence Square, President Viktor Yushchenko said late on Tuesday that the country was on the right path.
“Friends … I assure you that we are on the sole right path, the path of freedom and justice for each person,” he said at the site that was the epicentre of last year’s revolution.
The Ukrainian president called on the revolution’s dream team – the political forces who supported him during the protests but have since split up amid furious infighting – to unite ahead of next year’s key parliamentary elections, which Yushchenko needs to win in order to continue his pro-Western policies.
“The team behind me must be united,” he said to roars from the crowd, referring to leaders of political parties who joined him on the stage, including fiery Yulia Tymoshenko, who split with the Ukrainian leader after he fired her as prime minister two months ago.
“The 2006 election … is an answer to the question of whether we will be able to save what we earned 12 months ago and call Ukrainian freedom and Ukrainian democracy,” Yushchenko said.
Seventeen days of protests
Yushchenko, who gave Tymoshenko a perfunctory peck on the cheek that fell some way short of a sign of reconciliation, spoke from a stage set up in the middle of Independence Square, where a year ago he launched the 17 days of peaceful protests against a rigged presidential vote.
The demonstrations captivated the world, and in vital ways broke Russia’s traditional dominance over the former Soviet nation.
It also split the country.
While the agrarian, nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking west mostly backed Yushchenko in the standoff, the pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking east largely supported his electoral rival, former prime minister Viktor Yanukovich, and the division is still deeply felt.
Central Kiev once again turned orange on Tuesday, but rallies featuring blue and white – the colour of Yanukovich’s campaign – were held in the eastern city of Donetsk and in the southern Crimean peninsula, which supported Yanukovich during last year’s ballot.
“This isn’t a holiday for us,” one Donetsk resident told Ukrainian television. “Today is a day of regret,” said another.
Yushchenko assumed power on vows of turning Ukraine, which for hundreds of years was under Russian influence, on a pro-Western course, including eventual membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
“Friends … I assure you that we are on the sole right path, the path of freedom and justice for each person”
But a lack of progress on reforms, corruption accusations against his entourage and the split of the Orange team has left many revolution supporters disenchanted.
Nevertheless, Ukraine today is a different place from what it was a year ago – media scrutinise the government, competition among political parties is flourishing and the country is surely, albeit slowly, moving on its pro-European course, with the EU having recently begun negotiations on facilitating the visa regime with Kiev.
“This is a celebration of freedom,” said Alexander Safonov, a 42-year-old sailor and Kiev native who attended Tuesday’s celebrations with his wife. “Of course I’m a little bit disappointed … but at least now we have hope for the future.”