New Revolutions

9 December 2004

The New Revolutions

By Gwynne Dyer

The Ukrainian revolution has won. There still has to be a re-run of the second-round presidential election on 26 December, but there is no doubt that it will be pretty clean this time, and that opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko will win handily. So the heavy-industrial, Orthodox, Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine loses, and the less urban, Greek-Catholic, Ukrainian-speaking majority in western Ukraine wins. Or to put it more succinctly, Russia loses and the West wins.

Is that what really happened in Ukraine over the past two or three weeks? It’s certainly what most Russians believe has happened, and there are numbers of people in the West (most of them, curiously, on the libertarian extreme right) who believe it too.

They point to the support that Western diplomats and self-invited mediators like Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign affairs commissioner, gave to the opposition in its confrontation with outgoing President Leonid Kuchma’s pro-Russian government, to the high-profile presence of groups like billionaire George Soros’s Open Society, to the opposition’s manifest desire to work towards membership in the European Union (while Kuchma’s protege Viktor Yanukovich was promising to bind Ukraine to a Russian-led free trade area), and they cynically conclude that it was just a late episode of the Cold War. Are they right?

Viktor Yushchenko doesn’t think so. When he emerged from parliament on 8 December to report that the electoral laws had been reformed and that the crisis was over, he sent the sea of demonstrators on Independence Square home with the words: “In these seventeen days, we made this country democratic.” But on the same day there was Vaclav Havel, hero of Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” fifteen years ago, popping up on Ukrainian television to warn the victors of the “Orange Revolution” that disillusionment is sure to follow.

Well, of course it will, and Havel was not saying that they should not have made their revolution. He was just pointing out that democracy is not Nirvana. It is a less oppressive, more respectful, more inclusive way of getting to the deals between conflicting interest groups that practical politics always requires — but there still have to be deals, and some people will still feel aggrieved by them. Democracy simply strives to give everybody a genuine say in the process, at least once in a while, and gains its legitimacy from the degree that people actually feel that they are being treated as equals politically.

They certainly weren’t being treated as equals in the old Ukraine, where a kleptocratic clique of ex-Communist bosses made all the decisions, manipulated the media, and fixed the elections. It won’t be easy in the new Ukraine either, but at least many more people feel that they have a stake in what is happening. And as for the claim that this is just a Western plot to do in the Russians, it simply doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

The West DOES want to defeat Russia’s plans for Ukraine — or more precisely, President Vladimir Putin’s — but there is much more going on here than that. The West also encouraged and helped to fund quite similar democratic revolutions against other post-Communist criminal oligarchies in Georgia in 2003 and in Serbia in 2001, although neither of those regimes was actually a Russian ally. Nor were the revolutions there fakes either.

OF COURSE there was more organisation behind Ukraine’s revolution (and Georgia’s, and Serbia’s) than the stagecraft revealed. OF COURSE it needed money to happen. But the hundreds of thousands of people who stood vigil night after freezing night in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities were not ignorant dupes. They were there because they knew what they wanted, and it could not have happened without them.

The longer pedigree of the “Orange Revolution” includes the Indonesian revolution of 1998 (which overthrew a general, thirty years in power, who had ordered the massacre of at least half a million Communists), and the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa in the early 90s, and the revolutions that swept Communist regimes away in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989-91, and Tienanmen Square in 1989, and the South Korean and Thai and Bangladeshi revolutions in 1987-88, and the grandmother of them all, the People Power revolution in the Philippines in 1986.

They were all about democracy, they were all non-violent, and the great majority of them succeeded in bringing down cruel dictatorships. It was a new thing in history, a whole new technique for bringing about positive political change without incurring a legacy of blood, and it dominates the calculations of every remaining tyranny in the world. They KNOW they are vulnerable to it, and work very hard to avoid the kind of open confrontation between their policies and public opinion that might trigger it.

They can succeed for many years, especially if the gods of economic growth smile upon them, but they are almost all living on borrowed time. The Ukrainian regime’s time just ran out, but the governments of Russia and China and Burma and Algeria and Zimbabwe should not send to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for them, too.


To sjhorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“They…scrutiny”; and”Of course…them”)