Ukraine’s Orange revolution – one year on

One year ago huge street demonstrations convulsed Kiev, the capital
of Ukraine, for weeks in protest at rigged presidential elections. NIALL
MULHOLLAND, who visited Kiev during last year’s Orange Revolution,
reviews Ukraine’s Orange Revolution by Andrew Wilson, one of the first
books on the subject.

Around the world, people were gripped by the Orange Revolution, which
eventually forced the authoritarian regime of Leonid Kuchma to call
further elections in December 2004. The new poll saw the victory of the
Orange leaders, Viktor Yuschenko and Yulia Tymoschenko. Furthermore,
since the downfall of Kuchma’s regime, opposition movements from
Azerbaijan to Lebanon have claimed the ‘Orange’ mantle.

Andrew Wilson’s new book, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, is a thorough
and comprehensive account of events by a senior lecturer in Russian and
Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies,
at the University of London.

Wilson writes that the "dramatic popular uprising" has all "the
ingredients of a certain type of novel once thought out of fashion:
corruption, political manipulation, murder, spies, secret tapes…poison
and power".

Liberal revolt

As an admirer of Yuschenko, the pro-Western Orange leader, Wilson
sees things mainly in terms of the splits and intrigues amongst the
opposing wings of the ruling elite. For him, the Orange Revolution was a
revolt against autocratic rule and corruption and should have brought
about liberal capitalist democracy and pro-capitalist policies that play
by ‘Western rules’.

For socialists the most important questions are: What was the real
character of the Orange revolution? What did its leaders represent? Did
the movement further the interests of the working class?

Wilson gives little idea of the mood, hopes and demands of the masses
of protesters who braved the bitter cold for weeks on the streets in
Kiev. Or the feeling of the Russian-speaking people in the
industrialised east and in Crimea, who wanted change but were repelled
by the Ukrainian chauvinism and pro-market policies of Yuschenko and

Wilson summarises Ukraine’s complex history and the development of
its religions and languages. He quickly covers the years when Ukraine
was part of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, he does not explain that
society developed under a planned economy, in Ukraine and throughout the
former Soviet Union.


However, workers’ democracy was snuffed out by the Stalinist
counter-revolution, which also saw Great Russian national oppression of
Ukraine and "disastrous agricultural collectivisation policies" that led
to famine in that country.

Stalinist totalitarian rule eventually strangled the economy and led
to the system’s complete collapse. Discussing post-Stalinist rule and
the breaking away of Ukraine, Wilson graphically describes the
gangster-capitalist regime of Kuchma that came to power in the 1990s. He
includes excerpts from secret recordings made in the former president’s
office. These foul-mouthed transcripts, which included Kuchma ordering
his minions to arrange for opposition figures and journalists to be
beaten up or worse, read like discussions in the court of the notorious
1930s Chicago gangster, Al Capone.

During the 1990s, Yuschenko and Tymoschenko served as ministers under
Kuchma, including overseeing privatisation and other anti-working class
policies (not that Wilson sees it like this), until they fell out with
the regime. Yuschenko withheld his open support for an earlier
opposition movement, ‘Ukraine Without Kuchma’, which petered out.

Kuchma won the 2002 elections by use of bribes, threats, vote rigging
and by siphoning off opposition votes to fake parties. He tried the same
again for the 2004 presidential elections, when he stood his stooge,
Viktor Yanukovich – a convicted thug – in the polls. The regime went to
great lengths to stop opposition gains; Yuschenko nearly died after a
mysterious poisoning that left his face disfigured.


However, this time the majority of working people and the middle
classes in Kiev, and throughout much of Ukraine, had had enough of
Kuchma’s rule. After his fixing of the elections with the help of
Russian ‘political technologists’ (a sort of hyper-spin doctor), people
responded to Yuschenko’s call for protests.

Daily rallies and a mile long tent city were established in Maidan,
central Kiev. At one stage, up to a million people protested. Kuchma
could not rely on the police and army against the demonstrators.
Sections of the oligarchs swung to Yuschenko, the old regime’s days were

Wilson dismisses those who said that US imperialism bankrolled the
Orange revolution and that it was not a genuine movement. He is correct,
in that masses of protesters spilled onto the streets genuinely
demanding democratic rights, an end to corruption and to the rule of
oligarchy around Kuchma. Wilson shows Yuschenko’s camp was taken by
surprise by the size of the demonstrations.


As well as opposition to authoritarianism, there was widespread
political confusion and even the involvement of ultra-reactionary
organisations in Maidan. But the overwhelming mood was for an end to the
Kuchma regime and for better living standards.

Supporters of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – the
socialist international to which the Socialist Party is affiliated)
participated in the Orange revolution, calling for democratic rights and
an end to the Kuchma regime and the rule of the oligarchs.

We also opposed Yuschenko, despite many protesters having illusions
in him, and warned that a new government he led may be forced to be more
democratic but would also carry out more anti-working class economic
policies. We called for working people to organise themselves, to
struggle for not only regime change but also system change.


It is false to argue that the Orange Revolution was a crude Western
conspiracy. However, Wilson goes to great lengths to justify and, at the
same time, play down the significance of the funding and training of the
opposition by NGOs (Non-governmental organisations) and the Western

Yuschenko and Tymoschenko represented those oligarchs and local west
Ukraine businesses that had fallen out with Kuchma. Tymoschenko had made
a fortune by murky means, Wilson concedes, but then he argues that
Yuschenko was more ‘clean’.

But this is secondary. Corruption, violence and anti-democratic
methods are intrinsic to capitalist restoration in the former Stalinist
states, which has seen the wholesale looting of the state economy,
imperialist exploitation and a drastic fall of living standards for the
masses. Kuchma, Yanukovich, Yuschenko and Tymoschenko, despite their
bitter rivalries, all carried out pro-capitalist policies when in power.

Reliable ally

Yuschenko had the backing of the US and EU in 2004, as they believed
he would open up Ukraine’s economy more to western multinational
companies and that he would be a more reliable ally in the region.
Yuschenko’s coming to power was certainly a big blow for President
Putin’s interests in the region.

In Yuschenko’s defence, Wilson argues that the opposition in 2004
"needed money from somewhere; without it they would have lost. Left-wing
critics seem to imply that parties that might improve the lot of the
poor should remain mired in poverty themselves."

This is a caricature of the genuine Left. The CWI, in Ukraine, and
throughout the former Stalinist states, has always argued that workers
need independent mass organisations to fight for their class interests.
Working people need to fund these organisations themselves, with the aid
of workers internationally.


This is even more the case today, now that the Orange revolution has
turned bitter. Under Yus-chenko, the economy has nosedived. In
September, his chief of staff resigned, accusing leading government
figures of corruption. In response, Yuschenko sacked his prime minister,
Tymoschenko and the entire government.

Press reports about the lavish lifestyle of Yuschenko’s son have
badly damaged the president’s image. An opinion poll in November showed
that 57% of Ukrainians think the Orange promises have been broken. Even
Pora, the ‘radical youth movement’ of the Orange revolution, has evolved
openly into a party of business.

The government’s denial of Russian language rights, and continuing
poverty in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, means Yuschenko has won no
new friends in these regions. Indeed, yesterday’s man, Vicktor
Yanukovich, could even return to office in next March’s parliamentary
elections, unless the parties of Yuschenko and Tymoschenko are able to
agree an electoral alliance to defeat Yanukovich’s leading poll ratings.

Wilson puts the best case he can for Yuschenko’s first months in
government. In difficult conditions, Yuschenko tried to be a good
democrat and market economy reformer, Wilson argues.

However, working people in Ukraine judge things in terms of wages,
jobs, housing and concrete democratic rights – on all these issues the
Orange revolution has failed them. Despite intense disappointment and
even disillusionment, working people will learn from this experience and
eventually conclude they need their own mass organisations. With new
‘Orange revolutions’ predicted in other ex-Soviet Union states, it is
vital working people across the region do the same.

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution
by Andrew Wilson
Yale University Press
£18.95 hardback