Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/420/4913
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".
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 Tymoschenko.
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 numbered.
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 powers.
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.
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
In The Socialist 15 December 2005: