Late in the afternoon of Dec. 28, Viktor Yushchenko was working on a speech in his small second-floor office at the headquarters of his party, Our Ukraine. He had plenty to feel good about: he'd survived an assassination attempt and a plot to steal Ukraine's presidency away from him, and he was finally President-elect the results were in from the Dec. 26 poll, and he had pulled over 2.2 million more votes than his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. That evening Yushchenko was to address his supporters on "the Maidan," or Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev's Independence Square: the symbol of the civil disobedience campaign that erupted in November after Yanukovych "won" a vote marred by massive fraud and led to the Dec. 26 rerun. Yushchenko intended to call on the hundreds still camping on the Maidan to fold up their tents, and invite them back to the square on New Year's Eve to celebrate the orange revolution's victory. But as he was about to leave for the speech, two close allies, M.P.s Volodymyr Felenko and Taras Stetskiv, rushed into his office. Government sources had told them Yanukovych planned to chair a Cabinet meeting the following day, thumbing his nose at the still-unofficial result.
"It was an open insult to the people, and to the Rada [parliament] that voted to fire Yanukovych earlier this month," Stetskiv told Time. He urged Yushchenko to tell the Maidan about Yanukovych's plan, and to call outgoing President Leonid Kuchma to demand that he stop the Cabinet meeting. Yushchenko looked out the window to the wooded hill where, legend has it, the Apostle Andrew erected the first Christian cross in what is now Ukraine, and made up his mind: he would call for the tent city to be dismantled, but also appeal to his supporters to blockade the Cabinet office one more time the next morning, to stop Yanukovych from going in. He then left for the Maidan. His gambit worked: the blockade took place and Yanukovych folded. Three days later, Yanukovych submitted his resignation, saying he would enter the parliament as leader of the opposition. When Yushchenko appeared before the Maidan crowd on New Year's Eve, he said triumphantly: "We have been independent for 14 years, but we have not been free. Today we are independent and free."
Throughout the bitter, high-stakes months of Ukraine's presidential battle, Yushchenko has been buoyed by such shrewd use of street power it has helped him emerge as a tough, decisive leader and a symbol of change. But now he has to play a subtler game if he is to make good on his promise to transform Ukraine from an outpost of Vladimir Putin's empire into a vibrant, prosperous part of Europe a bridge between Russia and the West. He must establish a modus vivendi with a humiliated and angry Russian President and heal the divisions inside his own country, where the Russian speakers in the east are still bitter at the defeat of their candidate, Yanukovych. Observers express concerns about some of Yushchenko's lieutenants, who have shady reputations. There are continued worries about the damage to his health from dioxin poisoning. And, most ominously, a top Yushchenko aide told Time, some people close to him fear that those who almost killed the candidate last fall may try again. There's even talk among Yushchenko's aides though it may be nothing more than healthy paranoia that the would-be assassin could be a traitor inside the President-elect's camp.
So maybe it's no surprise that as the postelection euphoria subsides, even some close to the President-elect are worried about the challenges facing him. Does Viktor Yushchenko have what it takes? How pro-Western and pro-democratic is he? As a competent central banker in the '90s, he helped protect Ukraine from the impact of the Russian financial meltdown in 1998 and established the Ukrainian hryvnia as a stable currency. He then transformed himself into a low-key Premier, appointed in December 1999 in a deal to dissuade him from running for the presidency against Kuchma. He stood by Kuchma during allegations against the regime of corruption and murder of political opponents. The most scandalous allegation concerned the disappearance and subsequent murder of Heorhiy Gongadze, an investigative journalist who had been deeply critical of the Kuchma administration. Opposition leaders openly accused the President of having a hand in the killing, but the murder was never solved. At the same time Yushchenko pushed ahead with reforming the Ukrainian economy, and won high marks for paying pensions, salaries and student grants on time. Dumped in April 2001 when Kuchma felt he had outlived his usefulness, he became a popular but not particularly dynamic opposition leader. Everything shifted again with this year's presidential election campaign and the nearly successful assassination attempt late last summer. "That poisoning attempt really changed him," said Andriy Gusak, whose Pora movement played a key role in the orange revolution. "He had never been a real fighter until then, but he became one after the attempt on his life showed how … high the stakes were."