Ukraine: the revolution lives on

Nine years after the start of the Orange Revolution, its influence is still significant.

Although the revolutionary momentum has slowed down in Ukraine, the effects of the Orange Revolution persist in the region [Getty Images]

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004) is one of the three successful “colour revolutions” (along with the Georgian Revolution of Roses in 2003 and the Kyrgyzstani Tulip Revolution in 2005) that occurred in former Soviet countries in the first part of the 2000s. Their success was in overthrowing the authoritarian regimes in their countries after elections that were seen as unfair and falsified, and in bringing opposition coalitions into power for the sake of democratisation. The events in Ukraine were seen by many as one of the most significant, complex and contested coloured revolutions, at least in the post-Soviet region.

Since then, the revolutionary spirit has slowed down in Ukraine and many of the aspects of the pre-2004 status quo have come back. The defeated Viktor Yanukovych is now president and Russia has largely managed to re-establish its stifling influence. Yet the power of the events that took place on Independence Square in 2004 continues to reverberate throughout the region.

That was the happy end of a story about a popular uprising; about democratisation of a corrupted and increasingly authoritarian state; about active youth having a say in the future of their country; and about a shift from political despair to hope.

Kiev in orange

What was later called the “Orange Revolution” was a series of events that started on November 22, 2004 – the day after the second round of the much contested presidential elections in Ukraine. On that day it was announced that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was seen as the pro-Russian candidate, as well as the candidate of the incumbent regime, had won the elections. In response, the opposition, led by Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister and the challenger, claimed the election was fraudulent and appealed to the citizens to join the street protest demanding new fair elections. To the great surprise of everybody the citizens’ response was massive: Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered together in the streets of Kiev and other major cities of the country. A tent city of 1,500 tents was set up in the central square of the capital and became a home for the protestors for several weeks, despite sub-zero temperatures.

Those expressing their political will in the streets of Ukraine, however, were not only supporters of the opposition leader Yushchenko; backers of Yanukovych also took to the streets. Politically polarised supporters formed two camps: the “orange” camp of Yushchenko’s followers (orange was the colour of his election campaign) and the “blue” camp signifying Yanukovych’s adherents.

The popular unrest was one of the most significant factors that brought Yushchenko to power, but it was not the only one. There were internationally mediated negotiations between the regime and the opposition. The result was an amended constitution curbing the power of the president and engagement with various courts and the parliament regarding election-related complaints. As a result, the second round of the elections was rerun. This time the elections were declared fair and Yushchenko won.

That was the happy end of a story about a popular uprising; about democratisation of a corrupted and increasingly authoritarian state; about active youth having a say in the future of their country; and about a shift from political despair to hope.

Ukrainian blues

After nine years rich in political drama, the taste of the Orange Revolution has gone bitter and its achievements seem elusive. It is rather ironic that the presidential elections of 2010 were won by Yanukovich, now claiming that it was just another proof of his rightful victory back in 2004. Student groups, once one the of the pillars of the civic resistance, do not seem influential any longer; parties kept their elitist drive and failed to gain mass support; astonishingly active and well-organised civil society groups and individual citizens now demonstrate apathy and cynicism. Close political partners became enemies and one of the key figures of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, who in the good old days was called the “Goddess of the Revolution” is now serving seven years in jail after a court verdict that many see as unlawful and politically-driven.

The Ukrainian public have become divided over the legacy of the revolution. Some protestors claimed that amid the civil protests their motherland was born for them; others realized that their experience of engagement with the revolution made them understand that their Ukraine – the country they were living in and working for – was unfamiliar to them and only the events of 2004 helped them to rediscover it. They believed that the popular uprising was authentic and glorious. Some others called it the “orange nightmare” or “orange virus”. This faction believed that the events of 2004 were a West-funded coup, not an authentic but an exported revolution.

Some young Belarusian activists went to Kiev to support Ukraine’s revolution as if it was theirs.

Orange blast

The list of governments that responded to the Orange Revolution anxiously is rather impressive. Statements about the (im)possibility of the spread of the “orange virus” were made by the political leaders of Belarus, Russia, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Armenia. The aftershock of the revolution clearly spread beyond the Ukrainian borders. Some of these authoritarian leaders used this occasion to stress the strength of their own power and the weakness of government authority in Ukraine; to quite a few of them the Orange Revolution gave yet another chance (and reason) to tighten control over civil society.

Some of their fears were not completely groundless, though. It is believed that the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005 and 2010) and the peaceful gathering of hundreds of thousands in Beirut (2005) were inspired by the Orange Revolution. It provided an example for youth in Moldova (2009) protesting against the results of the parliamentarian elections, as well as to the unsuccessful revolutions in Belarus (2006) and Armenia (2008).

Belarus, perhaps, was the country most expected (and hoped) to host a coloured revolution after 2004. It is puzzling why the revolution did not occur here despite formal presence of most elements that made Ukraine’s revolution possible and the similarity of the situation in both countries.

The impact of the Orange Revolution on democratically-oriented groups and individuals in Belarus was significant: People were putting on orange clothes and black ribbons in support of the revolution and the Ukrainian youth organisation “Pora” (It’s time). It was done without the fear of being stopped or arrested by the police, with great enthusiasm and optimism that we, who want changes, are many.

Some young Belarusian activists went to Kiev to support Ukraine’s revolution as if it was theirs. It was also a chance to observe and learn about how to improve organization and mobilization of popular protests. For many Belarusian youth and activists from organizations like “Zubr” (Bison), the Orange Revolution was also a moment to reminisce about Belarus’ missed chance in 2001, when hundreds were protesting against the results of “somewhat free but clearly unfair [presidential] elections“, accusing the regime of the disappearance of three politicians and a journalist who were part of the opposition.

In March 2006 inspired by the success of neighbouring Ukraine’s protests, a better organized attempt to mobilizecitizens against the regime was undertaken. Like in Kiev, a tent camp was set up in the centre of Minsk, resisting police aggression and freezing weather. On the forth night of the resistance the opposition tent camp was destroyed by the police and all protestors arrested. One of the presidential candidates, Alyaksandr Kazulin, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for his role in the protests.

Then again in December 2010, following the presidential elections, a new wave of protests erupted leading to arrests, beatings and imprisonments. The protests, however, continued in 2011. Just as in previous years the regime’s response was beatings, detentions and fines.

The regime is still in power, but something tells me that the spirit of the Orange Revolution has not faded away and more attempts will follow.

Evgenia Ivanova is the editor-in-chief of a new Russian-language feminist journal “Women in Politics”. She is a doctoral student in Political Theory at the University of Oxford.