Ukraine Decides

On Sunday 17 January Ukraine holds its first presidential elections since the 2004 Orange Revolution. Read Andrew Wilson’s blog from Ukraine here: Installment One – What happened to the Orange Revolution?

Whatever happened to the ‘Orange Revolution’?

In 2004 Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ caught the world’s imagination. It seemed to set a new template for revolution-by-peaceful-carnival, and revived faltering hopes that democracy and prosperity were not reserved for the EU, but could also take root in the former USSR (the Baltic States excepted). For a brief moment, Ukraine was even fashionable: President Yushchenko’s poison-scarred face made him recognisable throughout the world; Jean-Paul Gaultier plundered Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s trademark braided ‘Princess Leia’ hairstyle for his 2005 fashion show.

Five years later, on the eve of new presidential elections, Ukraine could not be talked about more differently. ‘Ukraine-fatigue’ plagues Brussels and Washington, and many leading Russians claim Ukraine is a ‘failed state’. The economy contracted by 15% in 2009. Yushchenko the hero has become Yushchenko the failure. Isolated and ignored, the opinion polls suggest his support is under 5%.

All revolutions disappoint, but this one has disappointed more than most. So what went wrong? So many things. I only have space to list five of the most important.

1.       Not learning the right lessons from the election

Yushchenko’s biggest achievement was to get elected in the first place. His first big mistake was then not to govern as he campaigned.

Yushchenko managed to win the 2004 election by transcending the traditional cultural nationalism of the opposition. He ran a simpler campaign; promising good government (vs bad) and prosperity (instead of corruption, which had plagued the country since its independence in 1991).

But once in office, Yushchenko seemed to forget all this. He proudly called himself the ‘first real Ukrainian’ president. His policy of promoting the Ukrainian language (only about half the country regularly uses it) and a Ukrainian version of history in opposition to the old Soviet myths resurrected by Putin were sensible in themselves, but were never embedded in a policy to reach out to the Russian-speaking parts of the country that didn’t vote for him.

 2.       Wrong and unnecessary compromises

Yushchenko made the wrong compromises at the height of the Orange Revolution in December 2004. It was right to avoid bloodshed. Everybody agreed that the mass protests had to be non-violent – whatever some retrospective radicals might now think. 2004 was Ukraine’s belated 1989 – the moment when Ukraine caught up with the idea of ‘non-revolutionary revolution’. The Bolshevik myth of revolution as cathartic violence and the end justifying any means had not done the region much good since 1917. 

The most popular slogan on demonstrators’ banners in 2004 was ‘bandits to prison’, but Yushchenko blocked any attempt to prosecute the outgoing regime. By autumn 2005 there was an explicit amnesty for those who organised the election fraud. Two of the hired thugs who had murdered the journalist Georgii Gongadze back in 2000 went to jail, but not those who had ordered and organised the crime. Even Yushchenko’s own poisoning was mysteriously under-investigated.

3.      The oligarchs survive and prosper

By agreeing to a constitutional reform based on the proposals first submitted by the outgoing president’s chief of staff Viktor Medvedchuk in the summer of 2004 (as an attempt to fix the result in advance), Yushchenko allowed the old guard to turn parliament into a club of thieves. In essence, Ukraine’s so-called ‘oligarchs’ staged a preemptive coup against whomever was elected president by establishing a cartel in parliament, like the English aristocracy against the king in the eighteenth century.

The Orange Revolution was supposed to be a revolt of the new middle classes against the ‘oligarchs’; but all the other bad decisions made during the revolution – particularly the amnesty, the degradation of the judiciary and the strengthening of parliament – combined to ensure that the oligarchs were now stronger than ever. Even the freer media served their interests – Ukraine’s TV and print market was more pluralistic than it was free.

The worst of the secret deals seems to have been the transfer of control over the notorious company ‘Rosukrenergo’, which was in essence a scheme for creaming off massive payments for nominal services in the transport of gas to Ukraine from Turkmenistan. ‘Ros’ stood for Russia (Rossiia), ‘ukr’ for Ukraine – the scheme had originally been set up by Putin and Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing Ukrainian president, in the summer of 2004. Now it became a joint venture between Gazprom and businessmen increasingly close to Yushchenko. In January 2006 Russia sought to punish Ukraine by cutting off the gas supply in mid-winter. The price of the settlement was that Rosukrenergo emerged with a transit monopoly worth an estimated $4.35 billion a year. The sheer amount of money involved was arguably the biggest single factor in forcing the Orange Revolution off track.

 4.       Political infighting

When Yushchenko appointed his first government in 2005 he immediately undermined it by ‘balancing’ the power of Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Yushchenko would repeat the same tactic with every subsequent government – constantly sniping at his prime ministers from rival power bases in the Security Council or the Presidential Secretariat.

Yushchenko seemed to have forgotten why he was elected in the first place, and undermined Tymoshenko (who returned as prime minister in December 2007) with a war of dirty tricks.

The one good thing about the coming election is that Yushchenko seems to be on his way out. The five-year psychodrama of ‘Viktor versus Yuliya’ is hopefully at an end. It would be deeply depressing if conflict is so embedded in the system that the duel between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko is simply replaced by one between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych.

 5.       Dirty tricks

Going back to basics, the Orange Revolution was first and foremost a protest against election fraud – not just ballot stuffing but the whole industry of manipulation known locally as ‘political technology’. Crude fraud is now difficult in Ukraine. Simply stealing an election is no longer possible in Ukraine.

But other types of ‘political technology’ survive. Fake parties and ‘technical candidates’ ought to have disappeared. In both the 2006 and 2007 elections a lot of money was wasted on such parties But technical candidates are everywhere in the 2010 election.

‘Black PR’ was always going to be harder to eradicate, even if the underlying political and economic system had changed for the better. Economy and society are still dominated by ‘circles of interest’ (krugovaia poruka) that maintain a ‘circle of kompromat’ to check one another in a type of ‘mutually assured destruction’ or ‘Mexican standoff’. The system is less stable than in Russia, where political centralisation means that most participants keep their powder dry. Ukraine’s semi-democracy means that ‘kompromat wars’ are constantly breaking out. The public knows too much about its politicians and has come to distrust them all.

For more…

You can listen to a podcast interview with Andrew Wilson talking about the elections here. You can also subscribe to ECFR podcasts via iTunes or

Andrew Wilson is available for press interviews and comment on the elections. Click here for our press advisory.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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