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Orange Revolution

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Small Earthquake in Ukraine, Not Many Hurt

27 March 2006

Small Earthquake in Ukraine, Not Many Hurt

By Gwynne Dyer

Ukrainians did not reject the “Orange Revolution” of December, 2004 in last Sunday’s election. Indeed, if you read the news stories very carefully, they don’t even claim that — but most of the headlines deliberately give that impression. After all, why would foreigners want to read a story about a peaceful, lawful parliamentary election in Ukraine?

The real upheaval in Ukraine happened last September, when the alliance between President Viktor Yushchenko and the other hero of the revolution, prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, fell apart amid bitter recriminations. According to Yushchenko, it collapsed because of “the failure to recognise the position of one’s partners,…insincere behaviour,…behind-the-scenes intrigue,” while Tymoshenko says that “from the very first moment that the president came to power, people from his closest circle made an enemy figure out of me.” Both are probably right.

So Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko and appointed a new prime minister from his own circle, and the two leaders’ parties ran separate campaigns in this month’s election, splitting the “Orange” vote. As a result, the party led by Viktor Yanukovych, the very man whose alleged cheating in the 2004 presidential election triggered the revolution, will control the largest number of seats in the new parliament. With a little bit of work, you can make that sound like a big deal, but it isn’t.

In the last parliamentary election in Ukraine in 2002, Yushchenko’s party, Our Ukraine, won 24 percent of the vote nationally; this time, it has fallen to 15 percent. But Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, which won only 7 percent of the vote last time, has soared to 23 percent. Taken together, they have 37 percent of the votes, a good 5 percent up on what they had in the 2002 election, and are the obvious first choice for a new coalition government.

Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions got 30 percent of the vote, which makes it the largest single party. That result is hard to compare with its performance last time, since there has been much re-shuffling among the parties that mainly appeal to the Russian-speaking population, but it certainly doesn’t suggest that there has been a huge shift in public opinion. Nor are those parties as far apart from the mainly Ukrainian-speaking supporters of the “Orange” parties as they were two years ago.

The prospect of eventual Ukrainian membership in the European Union, however distant, still has a powerful attraction for Orange voters, but they are now a good deal more realistic about how distant it is: the EU has not even agreed to ease visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens. And if candidate status for EU membership meant rising prosperity (as it has for most other candidates), then most Russian-speakers would not be fundamentally opposed to it either.

The same shedding of illusions has occurred about Russia. The brief but shocking shut-down of Russian natural gas deliveries during the January confrontation over Gazprom’s huge price increases reminded Ukrainian nationalists that defying Moscow’s wishes can be an expensive business. (Belarus still gets gas at the old price). It also shook the confidence of some Russian-speakers in the essential benevolence of Mother Russia, and reminded them that all Ukrainian citizens are in the same boat.

The rift between Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers, whose divergent views on Ukraine’s nature and destiny have dominated the country’s politics since independence in 1991, has not closed, but it is narrower than it was last year. Viktor Yanukovych still insists that “the Orange Revolution was a putsch, plain and simple” — but his image managers in this election were American, (as were Yushchenko’s, while Tymoshenko’s were European), and he no longer comes across as a mere pawn of Moscow’s.

Yanukovych does still come across to many people as a pawn of the big business clans of Donetsk, the big industrial city of eastern Ukraine, or even as the personal protege of the biggest boss there, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, but this is a problem he shares with Yushchenko, who is widely seen as personally honest but too weak to defy the oligarchs whose placemen dominate his own entourage. Only Yulia Tymoshenko is widely perceived as not being in the service of the oligarchs, mainly because she is a billionaire in her own right, a beneficiary of the chaotic privatisations of the 90s who no longer needs to steal.

A new alliance between her party and Yushchenko’s in parliament, with Tymoshenko back in the prime minister’s job, is the likeliest outcome of this election if the two can rise above their personal antipathy. But even if Yushchenko cannot bring himself to renew the alliance with Tymoshenko and backs Yanukovych as prime minister instead — either combination would yield a parliament majority — that would not mean that Ukraine is going back to the bad old ways.

Corruption will continue to be a problem and the relationship with Russia will always be troubled and complex, but the whole country has moved on. Democratic politics often produces strange political bedfellows, and an orange-blue coalition in parliament is not the worst thing that could happen to Ukraine. It might even help to heal the ethnic divide that has opened up in recent years. It has been a very small political earthquake, and not many were hurt.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The prospect…boat”)

Orange Revolution

26 November 2004

The Orange Revolution

By Gwynne Dyer

“There will be fraud, but the scenario of victory by the government through fraud is utopian, it won’t happen,” said Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko just before the vote was held on 21 November. He may well be right, but we probably won’t know for another week or so. These non-violent democratic revolutions generally take two or three weeks.

That’s how long it took for the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia to overthrow the band of cronies and crooks around former president Eduard Shevardnadze almost exactly a year ago. By the end of the first week it was clear to everybody that the demonstrators protesting a rigged election were not going to lose interest and wander off, and that Shevardnadze had only two choices: to open fire on his fellow Georgians, or to yield power to the real election victors.

The outgoing Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, now faces the same unhappy choice. The electoral abuses that transformed a 54-43 percent victory for Yushchenko in the exit polls into a 49-46 percent win for his rival and Kuchma’s chosen successor, Viktor Yanukovich, in the final count, were so blatant that the European Parliament’s chief observer compared the process to a North Korean election.

The national turn-out was 76 percent, but in Yanukovich’s personal fiefdom, Donetsk, there was allegedly a 96 percent turn-out — with 96 percent of the votes going to Yanukovich. The rigging was so shameless that Yushchenko’s supporters came out on the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities in the hundreds of thousands — and having come out, stayed out. Once they had demonstrated their willingness to stay out on the streets day after day, regardless of the freezing weather, Kuchma had no options left except shooting or surrender.

There will now be a pause while the old regime and its Russian backers contemplate these options, and the Ukrainian Supreme Court considers an opposition demand to cancel the Central Electoral Commission’s final report declaring Yanukovich the victor on the grounds of gross fraud. But the Supreme Court’s last-minute agreement to rule on the opposition’s petition may just be an attempt to legitimise that report, for most of its members were appointed during the long reign of the gangster-capitalists who have dominated Ukraine since independence 13 years ago.

A court ruling that sets the crooked vote count aside and requires a new election would give the old regime a chance to surrender power gracefully if it decides not to fight on in the face of such strong popular outrage. As in Georgia last year, the leading regime members would probably be able to negotiate some sort of amnesty for their crimes. But if the Supreme Court should rule in favour of the existing regime, the crisis will not end: it is not that widely trusted.

In the end, the decision really does lie with Yanukovich, Kuchma, and their Russian sponsor, President Vladimir Putin. If they permit a new election under international supervision, then the oligarchs who control the heavy industry of the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine lose their power, and Russia loses its bid to bring Ukraine’s 50 million people back into a Moscow-led common market that would effectively recreate the old Soviet Union. But if they decide to hang on, then they will have to clear the streets by force, and that could trigger a civil war.

This is the way non-violence works. Its practitioners are not naive about the possibility of violence; on the contrary, they dare the regime to resort to force and accept the certainty of international condemnation and the risk of civil war that comes with it. If the regime does not use force in these circumstances, it is usually finished, but in a surprisingly large number of cases even deeply corrupt regimes will relinquish power rather than start killing. Even crooks can be patriots — and of course they can’t be sure that the police and army would obey an order to open fire on peaceful protesters anyway.

The situation in Ukraine is complicated by the Russian dimension of the crisis. Putin has backed Yanukovich very strongly, visiting Ukraine twice during the election campaign to appeal to Russian-speaking voters on his behalf and telephoning Yanukovich to offer him premature congratulations on his “victory” when the suspect vote totals were first released. But Putin could not support the use of force against Ukrainian citizens without gravely damaging his ties with the European Union and the United States, and he is unlikely to risk that.

The odds are, therefore, that Yushchenko and the Ukrainian democrats will not be driven from the streets by force. They have nationalism on their side, and Ukrainian nationalists dominate the capital and the west of the country whereas the Russian-speaking minority is concentrated in the heavily industrialised east, where many of their forebears arrived as immigrants during Stalin’s forced industrialisation of the Donbas region in the 1930s. Besides, not all Russian-speakers put ethnic solidarity ahead of democracy.

The outcome is still uncertain, and the stakes in Ukraine are so high that one false move could trigger violence. But the chances are good that for the third time in four years, after Serbia in 2000 and Georgia in 2003, an ex-Communist criminal oligarchy is going to be overthrown by non-violent democratic protest. The “Orange Revolution” (the opposition’s supporters favour orange flags and scarves) looks like it is going to win.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The situation…democracy”)