What ever happened to the Orange Revolution?

Last year we were told that a popular uprising in Ukraine had ousted a fraudulent leader. So why has that fraudulent leader now been voted into power?

Tara McCormack

Topics Politics World

If Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2005 really was a popular rising to depose a fraudulent leader and replace him with someone more progressive, then why has that fraudulent leader now been returned to power in a general election on Sunday?

The Orange Revolution was the latest ‘people’s revolution’ to overthrow an incumbent government in a former communist country, coming shortly after the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. Each has followed the pattern set by the 2001 overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia: people, backed by student groups (Otpor in Serbia, Khmara in Georgia, and Pora in Ukraine), take to the streets to challenge fraudulent elections and demand change. Each has been interpreted by Western commentators as representing radical democratic transformation from below.

During November and December of 2004 three rounds of elections took place in Ukraine. The previous Ukrainian President, Leonid Kuchma, had initially been favoured by Western governments, but in recent years had fallen out of favour. In the first round, the West’s new preferred candidate, Viktor Yushchenko (leader of the Our Ukraine coalition), supported by Yulia Tymoshenko (leader of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc), appeared to be defeated by Viktor Yanukovich, the incumbent prime minister and head of the Party of the Regions.

The difference in votes cast was marginal: Yushchenko gained 46.6 per cent to Yanukovich’s 49.5 per cent. It was argued that Yushchenko represented a pro-Western, anti-corruption programme, while Yanukovich (often referred to as Kremlin-backed) had a pro-Russian orientation. Support in the country was also divided: the Eastern, more industrialised regions felt closer to Russia, while in the Western, poorer regions, there was stronger support for Yushchenko.

Then US secretary of state Colin Powell immediately condemned the results, as did EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (1). The EU, NATO and the US urged a review of the election (2), and Powell warned Ukraine that it would be internationally ostracised if Yanukovich remained (3). Apparently without irony, the EU complained that Russia had been intervening in the election. The opposition launched protests, claiming that the votes had been rigged. Between November 2004 and January 2005 the media were saturated with images of people dancing to open-air rock concerts set up with laser light shows and giant plasma screens that materialised in the centre of Kiev.

The Orange Revolution took its name from Our Ukraine’s colours; it was the colour worn by the protesters. In early December it was also alleged that Yushchenko had been the victim of an attempted poisoning by the KGB at a dinner he had attended in September. Certainly his face appeared drastically altered. After three contested votes, Yanukovich stood aside, and Yushchenko was sworn in as president in January, stating that freedom had triumphed over tyranny and promising to take Ukraine into the EU (4).

Whatever the truth about the elections, it is fairly certain that they were subject to much external meddling. Claims about Russian interference dominated the media here, but the more than generous role of Western, especially American government-funded NGOs such as Freedom House was largely ignored (5). Of course, there is nothing new about interference in the elections of smaller states by their stronger neighbours, or by the Great Powers. During the Cold War, intervention in the political processes of other countries was often much more direct and violent than it is now (for example, in the assassination of Salvador Allende).

What is really striking about the recent so-called people’s revolutions is how quickly they run out of steam once the protests are over (6). And in Ukraine this collapse seems to have occurred even more quickly then usual. By July 2005 there had already been public rows between Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and President Yushchenko. Amid bitter accusations of corruption and bribe-taking, Yushchenko sacked his entire cabinet in September and accused Tymoshenko of being interested only in self-promotion. Tymoshenko responded by seeking to ‘out orange’ Yushchenko, and arguing that she represented the ideals of the Orange Revolution.

Polls registered general public disappointment with the new government. After the September split, the level of support for Yushchenko was around 13.5 per cent, 12.4 for Tymoshenko, and around 17.5 per cent for Yanukovich (7). A complicated deal struck between Ukraine and Russia after the recent gas crises – in which Russia attempted to force Ukraine to pay the market rate for the gas it bought and which has involved gas being sold through an intermediary company that has been investigated for its alleged links to organised crime – only added to the general accusations of corruption, and to disillusionment. Tymoshenko threatened to take the government to court over the deal. In the run up to the election last month, polls suggested that Yanukovich was gaining support.

Sunday’s election showed a complete reversal of fortunes for the Orange Revolution. Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions came in first place with around 35 per cent of the vote, followed by Tymoshenko’s party, with Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine trailing behind with only 14 per cent. A coalition will have to be worked out, with the very possible scenario of a link between Yushchenko and Yanukovich (8). Both the US and the EU have claimed that this election was entirely free and fair and seem to have no more interest in Ukraine.

The ‘people’s revolution’ has disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared, as has Western hostility to Yanukovich. Certainly the differences between the parties of the Orange Revolution and Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions were much more hyperbole then real. Yanukovich, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had all served as prime minister or deputy prime minister under Leonid Kuchma.

Despite the assertions that Yanukovich was ‘Kremlin-backed’ he was also in favour of membership of the EU for Ukraine. It was suggested that he did not support joining NATO, but Ukraine was already part of the ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme, which it joined under Kuchma. Yanukovich may have been more ‘pro-Russian’, but his was hardly a call to recreate the Soviet Union; rather his was simply a pragmatic stance towards a neighbour which had the lion’s share of Ukraine’s trade (plus a large Russian population). Upon Yushchenko’s assumption of the presidency he immediately arranged to visit Moscow.

If the Orange Revolution represented a radical democratic transformation from below, it is difficult to understand the rapid (and protest-free) switch in public support from Yushchenko, who, as many of the protesters quoted in the media argued, stood for freedom, honesty and Europe, to Yanukovich who represented the opposite. The sudden turnaround would suggest that whatever the motivations of those who protested throughout November and December, theirs was not, in fact, a coherent, positive or transformative political agenda.

The parties that formed the Orange Revolution had no particular political programme. Their main programme was formed in opposition to the Kuchma government and an exaggerated argument about the alleged hostility of Yanukovich to the West. They soon found out that all the NGO-financed rock concerts in the world cannot substitute for a coherent programme and a genuine political basis in society. Their superficial and opportunistic unity crumbled in the face of internal back-stabbing and intriguing.

It appears also that despite the large amounts of cash channelled into the Orange Revolution, the West does not really have much interest in the post-Kuchma political arrangements or the alleged poisoner Yanukovich who is gaining power. This seems to give the lie to the argument that the West plotted to have ‘pro-Western’ regimes put in place. Those who are branded as ‘anti-Western’ plainly are not, while the West seems to have no long-term plan for any government that it decides to fund, instead losing interest once its own opportunities for moral posturing and grand-standing are over.

In some ways, this kind of intervention is even worse than strong, politically motivated intervention, which would at least aim to install and protect a ‘friendly’ regime. Instead we now have a kind of half-hearted interference, which pays for laser light shows and plenty of orange clothing but has no long-term interest in the political or economic stability of small states; these interventions fracture the political system but are indifferent to what comes next.

For the people of Ukraine, whose country is subject to the vacillations of an opportunistic and venal elite, and an equally opportunistic and self-serving international community, the future is not looking too bright.

(1) ‘US rejects Ukraine poll result’, Sarah Left and George Wright, Guardian, 24 November 2004

(2) ‘Ukraine crisis threatens rift between US and Russia’, Nick Paton Walsh, Guardian, 24 November 2004; ‘EU anger at Putin’s role in election’, Ewen MacAskill and Nick Paton Walsh, Guardian, 25 November 2004

(3) ‘US rejects Ukraine poll as protesters dig in’, Nick Paton Walsh’, Guardian, 25 November 2004

(4) ‘Yushchenko hails victory over tyranny’, Ian Traynor, 24 January 2005

(5) ‘Inquiry sought into claims of US funding’, Nick Paton Walsh, Guardian, 13 December 2004; ‘US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev’, Ian Traynor, Guardian, 26 November 2004

(6) Serbia: from ‘people power’ to public passivity, by Philip Cunliffe

(7) ‘One year on, the orange uprising leaves a bitter aftertaste’, Tom Parfitt, 19 November 2005

(8) ‘Rivals weigh up options after Ukrainian poll’, Tom Parfitt, Guardian, 28 March 2006

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Topics Politics World


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