Yushchenko supporters have occupied Kyiv's main avenue, Kreshchatik, since the November 21 presidential run-off, resisting what they see as Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich's attempt to steal the election. The country's Central Election Commission certified Yanukovich a protégé of incumbent President Leonid Kuchma, and strong supporter of close ties with Russia -- as the winner, despite strong evidence that the vote was rigged. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some local pundits and politicos are trying to cast the protest effort as the "Chestnut Revolution."
In recent days, the momentum has shifted in Yushchenko's favor. The Ukrainian parliament adopted a non-binding resolution November 27 that described the official election results as invalid. Two days later, Kuchma held out the possibility of a new presidential vote. Sensing his support slipping, Yanukovich offered his rival the post of prime minister, and endorsed the concept of a new election, but only in two regions where voting irregularities were said to be egregious. Yushchenko said he would not serve under Yanukovich, and on November 30 reportedly withdrew from mediation efforts.
Political analysts suggest that the longer the political stand-off lasts, the chances increase that Ukraine could experience upheaval, even civil strife. Already, political leaders in several predominantly Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine including Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv have threatened to create an autonomous region if Yushchenko ends up as president.
What happens in Ukraine could have profound ramifications for other former Soviet republics. The mass protests could serve as an example for citizens of other CIS states, showing that popular pressure is capable of defeating efforts by incumbent authorities to stifle the democratic process.
Given the implications, it is not particularly surprising that leaders in Central Asia, a region that has moved sharply in an authoritarian direction in recent years, were quick to recognize the Ukrainian election results. The Russian RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev as saying Yanukovich's victory "testifies to the Ukrainian people's choice in favor of a united nation, a democratic path of development and economic progress."
At the same time, the early success of Yushchenko's protest initiative appeared to invigorate opposition politicians in the Caucasus and Central Asia. For example, Azerbaijani opposition leader Isa Gambar flew to Ukraine on November 28 in a show of solidarity for Yushchenko, the Baku newspaper Yeni Musavat reported. Meanwhile, a Kazakhstani opposition delegation visited Ukraine to study the methods used by Yushchenko supporters, the Russian daily Kommersant reported November 29. Kazakhstan is due to hold presidential elections in 2007. Parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, held in September, were widely criticized as rigged, yet the results failed to generate much of a public outcry. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"If our [Kazakhstani] authorities make the same mistake, using vote-rigging and administrative resources, the people will take to the streets," Kommersant quoted the head of the Kazakhstani delegation, Tolen Tokhtasynov, as saying. "The ideas of the rose and chestnut revolutions are beginning to penetrate Kazakhstan."
Tokhtasynov's comments help underscore the fact that Georgia's leadership, in contrast to just about every other country in the Caucasus and Central Asia, wants Yushchenko to succeed. Georgia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement November 28 characterizing the Ukrainian vote as flawed.
"I hope that the people of Ukraine will celebrate a victory of justice and democracy very soon," Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania told the Imedi television channel on November 29.
The Ukrainian opposition's bid for power is distracting Russia, and, depending on the outcome of the Kyiv protests, could reduce Moscow's ability to exert political pressure on Tbilisi in bilateral disputes over a variety of geopolitical issues. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Georgian student activists belonging to the Kmara movement, which acted as a shock force that helped President Mikheil Saakashvili come to power in Tbilisi in November 2003, are in Kyiv providing advice and logistical backup to Yushchenko supporters. In addition, the Russian NTV television channel reported that the Tbilisi city officials were organizing aid effort to provide Yushchenko supporters with warm clothing, blankets and other goods that could help maintain the outdoor protests.
Georgian musicians have also pitched in with a solidarity concert. On November 23, the first anniversary of Georgia's Rose Revolution, several groups performed outside Tbilisi's city hall. After that concert, the musicians spontaneously sought to travel to Kyiv to support Yushchenko's initiative. The Georgian airline Airzena then agreed to provide an airplane to transport the musician/activists. By early November 24, after securing permission to land in Kyiv, the special flight was in the air.
That evening members of several Georgian groups -- including Zumba, Soft Eject and Mcvane Otahi were performing in central Kyiv. At the conclusion of the short concert, the Georgians rushed back to the airport because the Airzena jet was needed for a scheduled flight to Greece.
Justyna Mielnikiewicz provided reporting for this article.