In December 2004, despite an assassination attempt and repeated efforts by Russian- backed political opponents to rig his defeat through election fraud, Viktor Yushchenko became the democratically elected leader of Ukraine. In doing so, he inspired citizens of the world with his extraordinary courage.
Yushchenko was elected president on December 26, 2004, after weeks of turmoil that thrust his country into chaos. In the November, 2004 runoff election, his opponent, the sitting prime minister, was reported to have won by three percentage points, but international monitors declared the elections fraudulent. Hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko’s supporters poured into the streets in protest, and what became known as the Orange Revolution, after Yushchenko’s signature campaign color, grew in strength over the next two weeks. In early December, the Supreme Court invalidated the election and called for a new runoff, and Parliament voted to overhaul Ukraine’s political system.
In the final runoff on December 26, Viktor Yushchenko won by just under eight percentage points. Through it all, Yushchenko sustained a near lethal poising by dioxin and was hospitalized for several weeks.
Yushchenko, 50, was born in a village in northeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, to a family of teachers. He began his ascent in public life in 1993 as head of the National Bank. Yushchenko later became known among the international community for his record as prime minister of Ukraine, where he oversaw a series of economic reforms that brought some order to Ukraine’s struggling economy. In pushing for reform, Yushchenko unsettled the country’s oligarchs and in 2001, he was fired by President Leonid Kuchma. But the following year, Yushchenko’s opposition coalition, Our Ukraine, won the largest bloc of seats in parliamentary elections, and the former prime minister suddenly became the leading candidate to succeed Kuchma.
For the example he set of political courage throughout the world, Viktor Yushchenko was honored with the 2005 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.