Yushchenko scorned as Ukraine turns its back on the orange revolution

Fifteen months ago, Natasha Diman, then 24, looked every inch the orange revolutionary, camping out in sub-zero temperatures on Kiev's main square in a display of people power that redrew the geopolitical map of Europe.

But as Ukraine went to the polls yesterday, Natasha, like many of her compatriots, said she was deeply disillusioned with the orange revolution to the point where she felt unable to vote for Viktor Yushchenko, the man she helped become the president.

It is such apathy and disenchantment that yesterday saw Mr Yushchenko's party humiliatingly beaten into third place according to two nationwide exit polls which suggested he had won little more than 15 percent of the vote.

If confirmed, the results would be a crushing blow to the pro-Western leader.

By contrast, the polls showed that "the man who lost the orange revolution" ­ the pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych ­ was on course to capture some 30 per cent of the vote in a startling comeback that will delight Moscow and disturb Washington.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the strong performance of Yulia Tymoshenko, known as "the Ukrainian Joan of Arc" during the revolution. Now estranged from her one-time ally Mr Yushchenko, her political bloc appeared to have won more than a fifth of the vote, putting her in a strong position to demand a place in a new government.

Mr Yushchenko will keep his job as president since the elections are parliamentary, not presidential, but the results will again redraw the political map of Ukraine, possibly tipping it towards the country it so dramatically turned its back on in 2004: Russia.

If a week is a long time in politics, in Ukraine's case 15 months has turned out to be an age.

Before the victory of the revolution was assured, a shivering Natasha Diman told The Independent that she felt highly politicised and hopeful.

An unemployed law graduate, she threw her lot in with Mr Yushchenko to shake off what she described as miserable living standards and an authoritarian, Soviet-style regime that danced to Russia's tune.

Fifteen months later, she doesn't regret her actions but wonders what it was all for. "We still hope for the best but nothing has really changed," she says.

"Yushchenko is a decent man, but too soft. He says good things but then does nothing when people around him do the opposite. He has forgotten that unlike the people politicians come and go."

Mr Yushchenko's image was damaged by a scandal around his son Andrei who was revealed to be leading a lavish lifestyle on income he allegedly derived from cashing in on the merchandising boom which followed the orange revolution.

It was hard for ordinary Ukrainians to accept since, crucially, revolutionary fervour has not brought improved living standards for most.

People scrape by on an average monthly wage of $150 (£86), prices fluctuate wildly, and unemployment is rife, while gas prices have risen sharply after a dispute with Russia that saw the country's supplies temporarily cut off in a pricing row.

Natasha is a case in point ­ she may have been one of its most loyal foot soldiers but she feels the revolution has not rewarded her idealism.

She is doing unpaid work experience in a bank in Kiev, the capital, has no income apart from savings and contributions from relatives, and says she has little prospect of anything better despite being well qualified.

Indeed many Ukrainians who have become disenchanted with the orange revolution are now looking for pragmatic as opposed to idealistic solutions to their problems.

That yesterday's elections do not carry the same weight as the orange revolution is indisputable, but they are highly significant.

Their outcome will dictate the make-up of a new, more powerful, parliament as well as the composition of a new government that will emerge from possibly weeks of horse-trading and backroom deals. And while Mr Yushchenko will have the right to appoint the foreign and defence ministers, all the other jobs, including the influential portfolio of prime minister, will be decided by the new parliament.

The ballot will inevitably produce a coalition government since no one party won enough votes to govern alone.

And whatever happens, Mr Yushchenko, whose personal popularity rating has crashed from 70 to around 20 per cent, will ultimately be forced to compromise and join forces with unpalatable allies.

For Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow candidate defeated so convincingly in 2004, it is a startling comeback.

With the help of slick American spin-doctors, Mr Yanukovych has come back from the political grave, reinvented himself as a man who can do business with Brussels and Moscow, and has deftly capitalised on the orange government's every stumble.

His Party of the Regions looks like it will have almost half the seats in the 450-member parliament. Conversely, Mr Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party looks like a spent force.

Ironically, Our Ukraine was up against the political bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery photogenic Ukrainian nationalist who stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr Yushchenko during the orange revolution and was one of his closest allies.

The two fell out spectacularly last September when Mr Yushchenko sacked her as prime minister arguing that his government had become paralysed by infighting, personal rivalry and Machiavellian plotting.

Ms Tymoshenko is banking on a spectacular comeback and is likely to push hard for Mr Yushchenko to reinstate her as prime minister.

Mr Yushchenko has promised to start negotiations to form a government as early as today with the forces traditionally associated with the orange revolution including Ms Tymoshenko's party. But whether he can clinch a deal remains uncertain since relations between Mr Yushchenko and Ms Tymoshenko are said to be glacial.

If that option fails, he may look to form "a grand coalition" with his one-time nemesis Mr Yanukovych. Such a coalition would unite the Ukrainian-speaking West of the country as represented by Mr Yushchenko with the Russian-speaking east as represented by Mr Yanukovych.

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