Long live the Orange RevolutionFebruary 8, 2010
Five years later, another election in Ukraine has come and passed. This time it looks like the winner will be Viktor Yanukovych, the one-time victor in 2004 who was abruptly ousted when a nation of millions stood up and demanded an election without fraud. And with his victory, the loser presumably won’t just be exiting president and Orange Revolution champion, Viktor Yushchenko, but the Orange Revolution itself.
I know that there are huge swaths of Ukrainians out there who will be feeling somber about this today, as they have been on a steady somber slide since the collective chant of “Yu-shchen-ko, Yu-shchen-ko, Yu-shchen-ko!” first filled the streets of Kyiv, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and elsewhere.
I remember back to late 2005, early 2006, the mood in western Ukraine was already shifting back toward the pessimism from a millennium of outside invasion, brutal dictatorship, soul-crushing bureaucracy, scant traces of self-rule, and the din of empty promises. As the honeymoon of the Orange Revolution was beginning to fade, people said to me that they had hoped for a strong leader, and that it was clear that Yushchenko wasn’t the right man for the job.
To me, the shame in Ukraine is that Ukrainians were basically left with two equally abysmal choices to run their country for the next five years. One the one hand, there was Yanukovych, who represents the establishment that still stood after the Soviet Union crumbled, the grey factories and treacherous coal mines of the East, the oligarchs that control most of the country’s real assets, the preference of Vladimir Putin, and a regress from the momentum that had pulled Ukraine toward true independence this past decade. On the other hand, there was Yulia Tymoshenko, who represents the perennial firebrand that stokes the coals of political instability, the relentless politician that always seems more concerned with her political gain than the real good of the country, the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
And then there was Yushchenko himself, who didn’t even make it to the runoff, after years of approval ratings that couldn’t even scratch 10%. Ask Ukrainians about Yushchenko even during the Revolution, and many would have admitted that he was more a figurehead for the great demand for change that swept over Ukraine in 2004 than the right candidate to lead the country out of its darkness. As the cheering face in early 2005, the bitter pill of reality sank in. The new president of Ukraine was not the kind of leader that Ukrainians were going to respond to. He wasn’t strong. He was authoritarian. He wasn’t charismatic. He was a banker.
What is sad in the Yushchenko saga is that he was in many ways a change for Ukraine. Probably for the better. Overall, press freedom blossomed. Visa requirements were relaxed and tourists and their foreign currency from all over were welcomed (whether or not there was infrastructure to make their stay comfortable). Ukraine was quickly becoming the friend of the west, as Yushchenko banked a lot of frequent flier miles in Europe and the United States. Ukraine cracked down on corruption and joined the WTO. A lot of things were changing for the better.
And yet, the forces of status quo saw to it that Yushchenko would fail. Russia toasted every winter with threats of shutting off Ukraine’s gas. Tymoshenko, her cronies, and an assortment of Ukrainian political figures turned everything government into a neverending circus of scandal and accusation. And sadly Yushchenko wasn’t strong enough to turn down the bait (I saw Yushchenko speak in 2005, and he already seemed more like a bitter old senator than a hope factory like Barack Obama). He always got pulled back into the circus, and never had time, or much of a chance, to govern without vitriol.
So, with Yanukovych on his way to victory, it is doubtless that many are marking down this day as the official time of death for the Orange Revolution in the annals of history.
Here is my take. I was there in Ukraine when millions stood up. I saw the moment when the way people carried themselves changed, when everyone seemed a little more positive, a little friendlier, a little stronger, a little more independent. No matter what comes of this or any future election, nothing will erase the fact that the Orange Revolution happened. And it happened because peopled joined together and made it very clear to the government that it was going to have to add a third election, one that wasn’t rigged, to the calendar. Sure, there was support from the west, as money and resources funneled in, that played an important role in keeping people going those cold December nights in Kyiv. But, none of that would have mattered had people not gone to Kyiv in the first place. And it wasn’t just in Kyiv. This was happening everywhere.
Perhaps the government didn’t change permanently. Maybe it’s still dominated by corruption, political infighting, and “old think”. But that doesn’t mean society didn’t change.
The truth is, the Ukrainian government isn’t going to change until Ukrainian society continues to change. It might take a generation or two, but remember that Ukraine got to where it is after countless generations of things being a certain way. What is vital is that people don’t just accept things the way they are, and resign themselves to a fate of bad government and status quo. For those who want the corruption to end, it is on you to not participate in it first, and push for those around you to stop participating in it.
Of course, in a place like Ukraine, the system itself is corruption, and it can be near to impossible to do anything without being corrupt in some way yourself. That’s only going to change if everyone first says, “I won’t do this”. From there, it is vital to continue to push against the walls and forces against progress. If you want true freedom, true independence, and better government, it can happen as long as you keep pushing. The Orange Revolution is proof of this, as it was also merely a step in the process. Eventually, Ukraine’s leaders will have no choice but to follow.
The Orange Revolution may have passed. But as long as people still want what it stood for, then the spirit of the Orange Revolution will live on.
Photo: Viktor Yushchenko in better days of his presidency.