Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Students Who Shook Ukraine - Peacefully

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Students Who Shook Ukraine - Peacefully

Article excerpt

For more than two weeks, a few thousand students hunkered in a sprawling military-style encampment planted in the heart of Kiev have left the world gasping in wonder and Ukraine's leaders quaking in their boots. They've been here since Nov. 21, protesting the results on the country's questionable presidential election.

But as they were ordered by leaders to begin folding tents and prepare to leave the barricades Wednesday, many of those radical, mostly youthful protesters wondered about the fate of their "orange revolution" - part street carnival, part urban revolt - and whether it was ending in victory or defeat. A compromise package of reforms overwhelmingly passed Wednesday by Ukraine's Rada, the parliament, ensures there will be new elections on Dec. 26 governed by tough new antifraud rules, as demanded by opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. But the same deal, signed by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, also mandates sweeping constitutional changes that will weaken the next president, strengthen parliament, and give more power to Ukraine's rebellious eastern regions.

Mr. Kuchma praised the deal as a triumph of compromise over conflict. "Over the past century Ukraine has often fallen into political crisis, but there was always enough common sense and determination to find the right solution," he said.

But critics, including many street protesters, view the changes as a cynical attempt by Kuchma to hang onto power by using his strong political base in parliament. "We've been robbed," says Roman Kolesnyk, from the central Ukrainian region of Zhitomir, who's been in the street camp for two weeks. "We came here to make Yushchenko our president, but now the Rada has just arranged that when Yushchenko wins he'll have no power. He'll be a symbolic leader, like the Queen of England."

Amid a lukewarm celebration - cake was passed around - some students indicated they would accept the compromise and go home. Others said they'll stay put until after the new elections safely put Yushchenko in power. Still others said they would go to the Russified eastern Ukraine, which voted heavily for pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovich, to win votes for Yushchenko. "The eastern Ukraine is like a totalitarian state," says Mr. Kolesnyk. "They have no information, and without that they can't make a free choice."

The tent city on Kreshatik, Kiev's main avenue, may have looked like a two-week rock festival, with its hordes of unshaven youth, graffiti-covered tents, and constant blaring music. But underneath, it throbbed with serious purpose. The gates were guarded by paramilitaries, who checked everyone's ID. Students inside were sworn to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and sex, and they conducted military-style patrols around the camp's perimeter. They were fed regularly by local volunteers, who brought pots of steaming borsch, loaves of black bread, and platters of steamed potatoes. …

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