Six days after they first poured on to Kiev's icy streets to demand a change of government, an orange-clad mass of would-be revolutionaries swarmed up through the capital's by now slushy avenues yesterday to lay siege to Ukraine's parliament.
Many were chanting the surname of Viktor Yushchenko, the man they believe has already won a presidential election despite official results which declare the contrary, while others whistled, hissed, waved flags and sounded klaxons.
"There are many of us. We are together and you can't defeat us!" ran the mantra over and over again. "You can't hold back freedom!" was emblazoned upon many of their bright orange bin-bag-like rain smocks. Drums banged in the background and the sound of the three-syllable 'Yu-shchenk-o' being chanted by thousands of people again and again — a ritual that has been kept up almost continuously for the last 120 hours — was deafening.
Behind the parliament's modernist fašade jittery MPs were holding an emergency debate that culminated in a vote of no confidence in the country's Central Election Commission, the same body which sparked fury when it declared the country's pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, to have won last Sunday's election. The MPs also passed a resolution saying the election result was "at odds with the will of the people".
The commission said the bear-like Mr Yanukovych had beaten the pro-Western Mr Yushchenko by 2.85 per cent and should therefore become Ukraine's next president, succeeding Leonid Kuchma, the pro-Russian incumbent who handpicked his premier to take over his mantle months ago. Western election observers, the United States, the EU and Yushchenko supporters cried foul immediately, saying the ballot was a fix marred by irregularities and cheating.
Almost a week later Ukraine is in truly uncharted political territory. Pressure is building on the nation's Supreme Court to declare a re-run of the election. But the lack of violence so far should blind no one to the combustible possibilities. The pro-government side, supported by millions who voted for them, may, if backed into a corner, react accordingly.
For now, the momentum is running Mr Yushchenko's way. Hundreds of thousands of his supporters have seized control of central Kiev, occupied public buildings, camped out in its main avenue — the Kreshchatyk — and its main square, the fittingly named Independence Square, refusing to go home until their candidate is declared president.
This highly organised exercise in mass civil disobedience has been peaceful so far but, as the days have passed, tension has progressively ratcheted up, and the prospect of violent clashes with outnumbered, increasingly embittered Yanu-kovych supporters draws ever closer.
The West and the opposition are convinced that a Velvet Revolution-style transformation of Ukraine is under way and that its momentum is unstoppable and can only culminate in the victory of Mr Yushchenko and the ungraceful withdrawal from the political stage of Mr Kuchma and Mr Yanukovych.
But Ukraine, a country bigger than France with a population of 47 million, is not the Czech Republic. Its history of independence is sporadic and, crucially, it borders Russia and hosts that nation's warm-water fleet.
Neither is it Romania. Leonid Kuchma, the man who has ruled the country with a rod of steel for most of its post-Soviet period of independence, is no Nicolae Ceausescu. He may stand accused of bribery, corruption, stifling authoritianism and complicity in the murder of a critical journalist. But he is by no means a universal figure of hatred; he commands serious respect among large swathes of the populace.
Nor is the country united. It is in fact implacably divided, with the Dnipro river serving as a fault line that splits the country almost exactly in half. The more Russified east backs Mr Yanukovych, and the west and centre, which sees the country's future in the EU, supports Mr Yushchenko. Watching dramatic images of fired-up Yushchenko supporters marching through the streets of Kiev is arresting, but similar scenes are being played out in pro-Yanukovych strongholds. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of his voters took to the streets of Donetsk.
The "Czechoslovakia scenario" is therefore never far from people's minds, with many Ukrainians fearing the political crisis could cause the country to split into two new states or prompt entire regions such as the Crimea to secede.
Russia rushed to recognise the validity of last Sunday's vote, and its President, Vladimir Putin, has made no secret of the fact that he backs Mr Yanukovych, visiting Ukraine twice in the run-up to the election to offer his support. Mr Putin's reasons are simple: Ukraine is strategically and historically sacred for the Kremlin. Regarded as the cradle of Slav culture, it spawned a medieval empire from which Russia itself eventually emerged, and 13 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union Ukraine remains vitally important to Moscow. Its rolling steppe is criss-crossed with Russian gas pipelines and it is geopolitically central to Kremlin attempts to reassert Russia's enfeebled grip over a region it regards as its backyard, which it does not want to see absorbed into the EU and Nato.
Yet Mr Yushchenko, an unassuming former banker now buoyed by massive popular support and a sense of destiny, seems determined to go for broke, despite the complexity of the situation and the inherent risks. Aware that he has to seize the moment now or go down in history as the man who presided over what promised to be a revolution but in the end proved only to be a mirage in the snow, his patience is running thin.
He wants fresh elections to be held on 12 December and for the corrupt Central Election Commission to be reshuffled, and will not take his people off Kiev's streets until he achieves his goals. Nor, he has made clear, will he bide his time while talks with Mr Kuchma and Mr Yanukovych drag on.
The situation, which is verging on anarchy, appears to be swinging his way. Last week saw him unilaterally take the presidential oath in the parliament, his supporters successfully blockade government buildings and his rivals agree to set up a working group to defuse the situation, a tacit recognition that last Sunday's results cannot stand.
A national strike called by Mr Yushchenko is beginning to bite in places and a "National Salvation Committee" has started issuing decrees. Senior members of the armed forces, the church and the police have come out on his side and, dramatically, several state-controlled TV stations, which previously practised a stifling form of Soviet-era self-censorship, have broken ranks too. Journalists on UT1 announced on air that they had had enough of "telling the government's lies" and said they were off to join the protesters on Independence Square. Another channel — privately owned One Plus One — which had been slavishly pro-government also performed a spectacular U-turn, parting company with its pro-Yanukovych news editor and promising viewers impartial news coverage from now on. In fact the channel's director, Oleksander Rodnyansky, even made a dramatic mea culpa. "We understand our responsibility for the biased news that the channel has so far been broadcasting under pressure and on orders from various political forces," he said live on air.
Yet, even for many Ukrainians, Mr Yushchenko himself remains something of an unknown quantity. His supporters may call him "the Messiah", but his background and nature are more that of a moneychanger than a charismatic radical.
Born and raised in a village in the north-eastern region of Sumy, which thrusts into the heart of neighbouring Russia, he studied finances and economics at university and served a year in the Soviet army. Following several years working in local branches of the State Bank of the USSR, by 1985 he had been promoted to a senior position in the Ukrainian Republican Office of the State Bank. In 1993 he became chairman of the National Bank of newly independent Ukraine itself, and three years later introduced the country's new currency, the hryvnia, helping rein in inflation by pursuing tight monetary policies. Although approached by the opposition to make a bid for the presidency in 1999, Mr Yushchenko refused. But when Mr Kuchma was re-elected to a second five-year term the same year, he nominated Mr Yushchenko as Prime Minister.
His swift rise to the country's second highest post did not go unnoticed by the powerful oligarch clans who control most of Ukraine's economy, however, and within 16 months he faced a vote of no confidence, which he lost, on 26 April 2001. The vote was initiated by Viktor Medvedchuk, chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine, who at the time was deputy speaker of parliament and currently serves as head of the Kuchma administration. Mr Medvedchuk forged an unsavoury alliance of MPs representing oligarchic businessmen with links to organised crime and diehard Communists who pined for a revived Soviet Union and hated Mr Yushchenko for his pro-Western posture and his support for Ukrainian membership of the EU and Nato.
In his speech before parliament after the no-confidence vote, Mr Yushchenko accepted the result but was defiant, saying: "I am going, in order to return." His comeback began with the general election of March 2002, when his newly formed bloc, "Our Ukraine", trounced the government coalition, winning 25 per cent of the vote against their 11 per cent.
It was during the run-up to the 2002 elections that Mr Yushchenko was first exposed to the intense public scrutiny. Government-influenced television and media revealed that, while serving as chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine, Mr Yushchenko had allegedly allocated $4,000 to his daughter's education in banking. The National Bank was also accused of funnelling tens of millions of dollars through Russian banks in the 1990s in order to artificially inflate Ukraine's hard currency reserves. To make matters worse, Mr Yushchenko was accused of complicity in the bankruptcy of the Ukrayinaa bank.
None of these accusations stuck, however, and Mr Yushchenko successfully brushed them aside as politically motivated. Portrayed as a Nazi on posters in Mr Yanukovych's home town of Donetsk, Mr Yushchenko has responded by pointing out that his father was in fact a Red Army prisoner of war at Auschwitz.
His wife Kateryna Chumachenko, with whom he has three children, has also been dragged into the fray. A US citizen of Ukrainian descent, she worked in the White House during the Reagan presidency, a fact that deeply irks Mr Yushchenko's political rivals. Although he is portrayed as the people's president, Mr Yushchenko has powerful wealthy friends. One close associate is Petro Poroshenko, the owner of car and confectionery factories and a shipbuilding yard. Other supporters include David Zhvania, a Georgian businessman, and Wolodymyr Martynenko, an oil and gas magnate who is one of Ukraine's 10 richest people.
Mr Yushchenko's popularity is based partly on his mild manner, more appropriate to an intellectual than a revolutionary opposition leader. In fact, even his own supporters used to think him indecisive and fawning towards Mr Kuchma, whom he once called "a father figure".
His struggle for power has not been without personal risk. Last September he fell seriously ill after a late-night meeting with security service officials and was rushed to an Austrian clinic, where doctors said he was at death's door. Mr Yushchenko and his supporters say he was the victim of an attempted assassination by poisoning, but have failed to produce solid evidence to back up the claim. What is certain is that he has weathered appalling health problems to get where he is, and his pockmarked, swollen face still bears the scars of his illness.
As the stand-off continues, his supporters vow they will not back down. Ironically, thousands of them are holed up in a Soviet-era building that used to be a museum dedicated to Lenin, the leader of the Russian revolution, but which has now become the nerve centre of the Orange Revolution. Sprawling in sleeping bags for the past six days when they are not out pounding the pavements, the protesters believe that God is on their side and are constantly blessed by black-robed priests wandering in their midst.
"Of course the church doesn't campaign," said one Orthodox priest, Oleksa Petriv, with a wry smile. "But God favours those who respect the constitution and is against vote-rigging." Maybe. But in a land as divided as this one, even divine backing may not win you the big prize.news.independent.co.uk/europe/story.jsp?story=587545E-mail this article