Ukraine: on the bumpy road to democracy

Through the Orange Revolution in 2004 Ukraine turned its back on authoritarian politics and started on the bumpy road towards democracy, says Andreas Umland, reviewing the cream of recent scholarship in this second article marking the fifth anniversary of that event. That was what really riled the Kremlin, and perhaps prompted it to restore an essentially single-party system in Russia, that of ‘sovereign democracy’.
Andreas Umland
29 November 2009

 Five years on from the Orange Revolution two books have appeared which cast light on what the Orange Revolution was really about, and review its significance against the background of developments in Russia. One, Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition,  edited by Andreas Schedler, does not deal directly with the Ukrainian uprising, but focuses on comparative regime typology.[i] The other is Andrew Wilson’s acclaimed monograph on the nature of post-Soviet politics, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World.[ii]

In mainstream Russian interpretations of the Orange Revolution, the crucial issue is presented, at best, as an extraordinary continuation of the ongoing power struggle between Ukraine’s two competing political-economic clans, with their geographically- and culturally-defined constituencies in Eastern and Western Ukraine. At worst, it is regarded as a clash between two antagonistic civilizations, with heavy involvement by the amerikantsy.

There is no doubt that two clearly distinguishable Ukrainian political groups were set against each other in these elections. Though both were officially in favour of EU membership, one was more pro-Western than the other. Admittedly, the Orange Revolution was not a proper revolution by comparison with the French, Russian or other social revolutions. It should perhaps be classified as a mass action of civil disobedience in defence of the country’s political order as defined by the Constitution of Ukraine adopted in 1996.   The Kremlin’s systematic deflation of Russia’s nascent democratic institutions as well as the silent devaluation of her Constitution since 2000  come closer to qualifying as a political revolution from above.

Yet the 2004 actions that came to be known as the Orange Revolution were not merely about who would win the elections. What mobilized hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians as well as several prominent international organizations was the issue of how the elections were conducted. In other words, the primary question was whether this presidential poll constituted a democratic election, or not. What the Russian noise concerning the Orange Revolution has been trying to obfuscate ever since 2004 is that this upheaval was not so much about which politician would rule Ukraine, but about what kind of rule the country should have. At stake was, only in the second instance, the composition of Ukraine’s highest offices. The immediate and more fundamental issue was what the nature of Ukraine’s post-Kuchma political regime would be.

From proto-democratic to pseudo-democratic

Schedler’s Electoral Authoritarianism and Wilson’s Virtual Politics are helpful in clarifying this distinction. Their books – Schedler’s from a theoretical and cross-cultural, and Wilson’s from a post-Soviet and intra-regional comparative perspective – draw a clear line between Ukraine’s pseudo-democratic regime before the Orange Revolution, and its proto-democratic political system after it. Schedler defines the generic regime-type, of which Kuchma’s Ukraine was but one permutation, as “electoral authoritarianism.”

While seemingly pluralistic voting procedures defined as “elections” take place in such countries regularly, these states nevertheless constitute dictatorships – if, mostly, of a relatively soft type. At the heart of such systems lies a formal acceptance of multi-party and -candidate elections as a procedure for the legitimization of power. However, in electoral authoritarian regimes, the overall socio-political context of such “elections” and how they are conducted on voting day are manipulated and/or their results falsified to such an extent that they cannot be classified as democratic any more.

From this viewpoint, it seems an open question whether these political systems should be understood as hybrid regimes between demo- and auto-cracy, or whether the attribute “electoral” in their title represents, in fact, a euphemism that distracts from the controlled – or, in Wilson’s words, “virtual” – character of public politics in countries with electoral authoritarian regimes.

The workings of Ukraine’s virtual politics

For those acquainted with the various “political technologies” used to deprive formally democratic processes of their meaning in the post-Soviet context, Schedler’s collection make fascinating reading. Its papers show that these phenomena are not as region-specific as we might have thought.[iii] But while it is arguable that we are dealing here with a larger phenomenon inviting cross-cultural comparison, Wilson’s Virtual Politics shows us what is specific about the post-Soviet context, and the particular ways in which “political technology” works.

He demonstrates in admirable detail how hidden control of information flows, party-building, and electoral processes by the powers-that-be have so subverted democracy in the post-Soviet world that a relatively novel system of relations between the state and society has been created.  Under this system fundamental electoral procedures are formally observed, but rendered largely senseless by their more or less sophisticated manipulation.

Wilson’s terminological innovation consists in lifting the hitherto largely colloquial, peculiarly post-Soviet construct of “political technology” to a proper political science concept. He has turned the term into one specifically designed to distinguish certain essentially anti-democratic political practices from those political PR campaigns that are also well known in the West.

Wilson’s argument is that “political technology” should only partly be understood as a radicalization of some dubious Western political practices, such as the massive negative advertising that has been typical of recent US presidential election campaigns. He demonstrates that “political technology” is, above all, rooted in the Soviet past of Russia and the other republics; namely in the peculiar subversion strategies that the KGB and other Soviet bloc security services developed in their fight against anti-Soviet dissent.

On the one hand, Wilson has thus strengthened the Soviet element within “post-Soviet transitions”, lending support to those researchers emphasizing the continued relevance of the ideographic element in – as opposed to nomothetic approaches to – the study of contemporary Russia, Ukraine, etc. On the other hand, we might be dealing here with a situation where post-communist studies can make a contribution to general political science.  “Political technology” or “virtual politics,” as introduced by Wilson, are concepts that can travel to other regions of the world and could help us towards a better understanding of the various distortions of democratic procedures by the spin-doctors. They might not have had the benefit of serving in the Soviet security services, but may still be equally cynical and similarly original in their choice of instruments for stage-managing allegedly democratic processes.[iv]

An alternative to sovereign democracy

Ukraine’s departure from electoral authoritarianism and re-emergence on a democratic transition path seems to be the major reason why the immediate reaction and continuing attention of Russia’s currently ruling circles to the Orange Revolution has been so nervous.  It was not only the more pro-Western approach of Yushchenko and supposedly pro-Russian sentiment of Yanukovych that was at stake for the Kremlin in Kyiv in 2004. The Orange Revolution appeared threatening as it concerned an issue that was then related to, and still touches upon, the core of Putin’s “sovereign democracy.” It provided a model for how a post-Soviet society can get out of the deadlock of electoral authoritarianism and use, with foreign support, remnants of democratic procedures to topple a de facto dictatorship.

It might have been the experience of the Orange Revolution that motivated the Kremlin three years later to abandon its earlier dramaturgy of staged political competition by controlled parties.  In December 2007 it opted for an almost complete, largely undisguised restoration of an essentially single-party system.[v] What has changed in Russia since the publication of Wilson’s Virtual Politics is that, by late 2007, the Kremlin did not any longer bother to fake political pluralism. Instead Russia has returned to its “special path”, more or less openly denouncing the principle of checks and balances, and even re-discovering ancient Byzantine traditions to legitimize the country’s now manifestly monistic political order.[vi] This development is even more stunning in view of the fact that Ukraine - a country whose history is closely intertwined with, and which has experienced an even deeper post-Soviet crisis than, Russia– is, by early 2009, still on the bumpy road to a consolidated democracy, and making slow, but steady advances in its rapprochement with such institutions as the WTO, NATO and EU. In fact, Ukraine is, as of today, still developing differently from virtually all other states that grew out of the Soviet Union founded in 1922.[vii]



[i] Andreas Schedler, Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition (Boulder, CO: Lynne  Rienner 2006). There are now also a number of scholarly monographs, collected volumes and research papers that deal specifically with the Ukrainian presidential elections of 2004. The list includes Wilson’s other recent important book on the Orange Revolution (a kind of standard reference on the event),[i] Strasser’s investigation into the role of civil society in it, Bredies’ analysis of the Verkhovna Rada, as well as paper collections edited by Kurth/Kempe, Bredies, McFaul/Aslund, Kuzio, Shapoval, and Lane/White.[i] In addition, there are now numerous important individual journal articles.

 [ii] Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World (Yale University Press, 2005)

 [iii] See Andreas Umland, “Elektoral’nyi avtorytaryzm postsovets’koï demokratiï [– a self-contradictory title formulated by the editors of the journal],” Krytyka, no. 9 (2007), http://www.krytyka.kiev.ua/articles/s.1_9_2007.html; idem, “Elektoral’nyi avtoritarizm na postsovetskom prostranstve,” Sravnitel’noe konstitutsionnoe obozrenie, no. 1(62) (2008), http://www1.ku-eichstaett.de/ZIMOS/forum/docs/a12Buchbespr2.pdf.

 [iv] Wilson’s Virtual Politics is of additional value because of the astonishing amount of often little-known facts, dates and names that he has amassed here, and the variety of large events and small affairs that his narrative chronicles. Russian or Ukrainian political scientists may find Wilson’s emphasis on the role of “political technology” not very original, and be, at best, intrigued by the relative novelty of these phenomena to the comparative study of democracy. Even they will, however, be impressed by, and able to learn from, Wilson’s book because it is such a dense and well-researched description. Sometimes, to be sure, certain small facts are wrong, a Russian or Ukrainian word is misspelled, or an interesting event is missing in the story. For instance, Wilson, in his description of Zhirinovskii’s activities in 1990-1991, does not mention the LDP-leader’s meeting with Vice-President Gennadii Yanayev shortly before the August Coup of 1991. See Andreas Umland, “Zhirinovsky Enters Politics: A Chronology of the Emergence of the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia 1990-1991,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 18, no. 1 (2005): 15-30. But such minor errors or omissions seem unavoidable in as wide-ranging a narrative as Wilson’s clearly is. Rather, one is left overwhelmed by the amount of empirical data provided here.

 [v] Andreas Umland, “Kremlin Overkill: Why Putin’s entry into party politics is the beginning of the end of Russian façade democracy,” Zerkalo nedeli, 13-19 October 2007, http://www.mw.ua/1000/1550/60798/.

 [vi] On the idea of Russia’s special path, see Leonid Luks, Der russische “Sonderweg”? Aufsätze zur neuesten Geschichte Russlands im europäischen Kontext. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 16 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2005).

 [vii] The other partial exception is, of course, Georgia that was playing the role of a model for Ukraine in 2004. It appears, however, that Georgian democratization has more recently encountered difficulties. See, on Georgia’s difference from Ukraine, Taras Kuzio, “Georgia and Ukraine: Similar Revolutions, Different Trajectories,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, vol. 4, no. 211 (2007), http://www.taraskuzio.net/media/pdf/Georgia_Ukraine.pdf. Moldova and the Baltic republics were annexed to the Soviet Union only later.


Andreas Umland (b. 1967) is a research assistant at the Central and Eastern European Studies Centre of the Catholic University of Eichstätt. He started up and edits the ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart & Hannover book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society as well as the electronic newsletter The Russian Nationalism Bulletin.

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