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”)