Kiev's Victory Carnival

Is this a revolution or a carnival? As anyone in the world with a television can see, the primary color of Ukraine's celebrated Orange Revolution is still very much orange. The multitudes turning out in Kiev and cities across the country are wearing their trademark hats, scarves and personal body banners--all orange, of course. They wave orange flags, tie orange ribbons on their cars and toast one another with orange fizzy drinks. But what's with the man in the gorilla suit? Or Santa Claus and the woman dressed up as the Snow Queen? Or the children with balloons riding Shetland ponies? Not to mention the guy with a monkey on his head.

Once again, it's chaos on Independence Square. A month ago, hundreds of thousands of angry Ukrainians poured onto the streets protesting the results of a presidential election almost universally condemned as a fraud. That demonstration of people power forced a new vote--and now they're back, this time in celebration. The man they love to hate--Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, heir to the outgoing president Leonid Kuchma--appears to have been soundly defeated by their hero, the leader of Ukraine's liberal opposition, Viktor Yushchenko. With 99 percent of the ballots counted, Yushchenko leads Yanukovych 52.2 percent to 43.9 percent.

The government has until Jan. 13 to certify the results. This being Ukraine, anything could happen. Even before the tally began, Yanukovych signaled that he may challenge the results in court, alleging the sort of "irregularities" that sank his own campaign in November's discredited vote. Unlikely as it may be, other reports suggest that Kuchma may yet try to provoke violence in order to declare a state of emergency and hold onto power. None of this has dampened people's spirits, though. As far as they're concerned, they have won. Democracy in Ukraine is on the march. It's time to party.

They didn't even wait for the polls to open. In contrast to the last go-round, when fear and uncertainty ruled, this time most Ukrainians knew what was going to happen. On the streets, in cafes, in government offices, a sense of inevitability was palpable: this would be Yushchenko's day. "Tak," as his campaign theme had it, was shouted daily in the streets. "It's time." Here's a look at this past historic weekend.

Saturday, Dec. 25

You can see the new mood at the offices of the apparent losers. It's Christmas, the day before the critical vote, and the Yanukovych headquarters is a morgue. Eight coats hang in the cloakroom. Hallways are all but empty. No phones ring. Yet Taras Chernovil, the campaign manager, is weirdly buoyant. Those crowds in Independence Square? Brainwashed, he says. Misled by opposition "propaganda" and "psychological manipulation." Ukrainians hate the Kuchma regime and wrongly associate his man with it, he complains. He hazards no guesses as to the outcome of tomorrow's voting, but (aside from the vaguely threatening security men outside, one of whom has a black eye) Chernovil is pretty much the only sign of life in the building. Even the photocopiers in the corridors are on "sleep" mode. Contrast this to Yushchenko headquarters, a thrumming hive of bustling campaign workers, eager visitors and press conferences. Outside his doors, children trim a Christmas tree and dance around it, hand-in-hand and singing.

You can feel the change as well at the tent city on Khreschatyk, Kiev's central boulevard that's been the front line of the revolution. Some 10,000 Yushchenko supporters have camped out here for a month, 24/7, warming themselves around wood stoves and demanding regime change. But they, too, see the handwriting on the wall. "We've won," says Anya, a translator in her mid-20s who used her two-week vacation to man the barricades. "The government has given up," agrees her friend Aleksei, 29, who looks forward to settling into a more regular routine at his job as an accountant with a large canning company in Kiev. He has spent every night here for a month, arriving after work, standing guard and grabbing a few hours sleep under canvas before heading back to the office. If Yanukovych had won, he says, "I would ask for asylum in America."

As darkness settles over the city, on the eve of Ukraine's historic day, the crowds grow in Independence Square, known locally as Maidan. No one worries that security forces might descend upon them, truncheons flailing. Instead, police politely direct traffic--and help set up fireworks. They burst radiantly over the square, against a full moon and high above a towering Christmas tree with alternating lights in orange and blue. A Strauss waltz pours from the sound system. It is inspiring political theatre; many people are in tears. And this is only the warm-up for tomorrow.

Sunday, Dec. 26

On election day itself, people begin gathering in Maidan after voting and swell in number through the evening. The first returns hit like a thunderclap. Loudspeakers blast out the exit polls just after 8:00 p.m.--and the festivities begin in earnest. Rock bands take the stage at the center of the square. People dress up in funny costumes: orange hair, orange Santa hats, tangerine noses. Caravans of honking cars thread through the congested streets, banners flying, girls draped rapturously across their hoods. People dance, as best they can in the press of humanity. Everyone joins hands and sways to the pop anthem of the revolution: Razom nas bohato, nas ne podolaty. "There are a lot of us! We cannot be defeated!"

When Yushchenko appears in the early morning hours, he tells the cheering throngs, "We are free. The old era is over! We are a new country now!" And so it goes. At 3 a.m. the crowds were still shouting themselves hoarse--and Monday night, a full day later, they will still be at it.

The days ahead

Now comes the hard part. Assuming the government does not find a way to slew the election results in their favor, Yushchenko must begin forming a government from his fractious coalition of opposition leaders. He must fend off legal challenges (however trumped up) from Yanukovych and his supporters. That will almost certainly postpone Yushchenko's inauguration well into January.

Most importantly, he must bridge the bitter divides of the election. Yushchenko's victory in Ukraine's Europeanized western districts exceeded 85 percent. In the east and south, bordering Russia, Yanukovych won by a similarly lopsided margin. The country is in little danger of splitting apart, as has been bruited about in the international media, analysts say. But that doesn't alter the fact that Yushchenko and his talk of change are viewed with suspicion by much of the country. Nor can he expect much of a honeymoon. Once in office, he will have to move quickly to deliver on his promises to the nation: an attack on pervasive government corruption, economic reform and the creation of the western democratic institutions that are so glaringly lacking today.

They are daunting challenges. But he has a powerful ally in the real victors of yesterday's election--Ukraine's people. For the first time in decades, they are on the world's map. For the first time since World War II, and their descent into Soviet-era autocracy, they sense their power. What took place on Maidan over the past weeks was democracy at its most raw. It might look like a party. But it in fact is revolution, and it's now up to Yushchenko to fulfill its promise.