Ukraine: a tale of two elections

Olesia Oleshko, who monitored Ukraine’s 2004 election, compares that election with the one which has just brought Victor Yanukovich to power. Then, the popular will changed the outcome, resulting in the Orange Revolution. That won’t happen this time
Olesia Oleshko
15 February 2010
Yanukovich on TV

The excitement of the presidential election faded as soon as the first exit-poll results were announced on February 7th. Two days later the Central Election Commission sealed the victory of the opposition candidate Victor Yanukovich by publishing the official results: he had beaten his rival, the incumbent Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by a margin of 3%. “C’mon guys, it was pretty much expected” – said Borys Kolesnikov, one of the closest Yanukovych’s allies, passing by a bunch of journalists who had gathered in their election press center – “The sky hasn’t fallen in!”

It’s true, it hasn’t.  It just dropped a vast quantity of snow, as it did in the winter of 2004, on the occasion of Ukraine’s decisive presidential election. Then, I was working with Ukraine’s biggest election monitoring organization, the Committee of Voters of Ukraine (CVU). I was also doing a lot of freelancing for European print and online media. Every day I was getting dozens of phone calls from fellow journalists and friends living abroad. They were all asking – so how are things in Ukraine? What’s going to happen if Yanukovich wins? He won’t win, I would answer: the Ukrainian people has had enough of corrupt government, it can’t take any more. But what if they (Yanukovich and ex-president Kuchma) simply steal the victory from Victor Yushchenko , they kept asking. We won’t let them, I said. I don’t know why I was so sure.

I clearly remember the runoff taking place in that cold late November of 2004: that evening, after sending tons of press releases and posted news on our site, my colleague Oksana Kuzenko and I went for coffee to a famous Kyiv bar, Baraban (the Drum),  a hangout for local and international intellectual bohemia. The place is carefully hidden – to get there you have to sneak through an arch, go round some huge smelly trash containers, dive into a small basement bar – and there you are. The magical thing about that place is that no matter when you get there you will always meet your friends there. That night was no exception – we ended up at a table full of journalists, political pundits, writers and arty types. A cup of hot coffee followed by sambuca (a strong liquor) revived our frozen bodies. The guys sitting around were fiercely discussing the worst case scenario – what to do and where to go if Yanukovich won. One famous TV reporter had got hold of long-term Schengen visas for himself and his wife and was ready to take off at any moment. Another was taking Polish language classes to prepare for his future in the land of our neighbor to the west. The rest were just saying “Well, we’ll stay here and do whatever’s needed to defend our choice”. We finished our drinks and walked back to the office. There we heard the first alarming news – the early count at the Central Election Commission suggested that Victor Yanukovich was going to win. This didn’t tally  with the result of parallel count and exit polls conducted by non-partisan NGOs. Domestic observers kept reporting on the unprecedented number of violations. International observers later confirmed these findings. The CVU team stayed awake all night receiving and processing information from its field missions. Oksana invented a great energy drink – a mix of cheap instant coffee, coca cola and cognac. I turned into a press release producing/translating machine. At 6 A.M. Oksana and I got the chance to take a short break, so we curled up like a pretzel on two tiny sofas in our office.

Orange revolution in Kiev

The largest Orange Revolution meeting, in Kiev's Independence Square attracted an estimated 500,000 participants.

Two hours later we woke to find ourselves in another country: outraged by the massive falsification of the election results, people had crowded into Independence Square in downtown Kyiv. They stayed there till the repeated runoff took place. They weren’t deterred by cold weather, or rumors that they were going to be beaten up. They just wanted their voice to be heard -  and, of course, they wanted to live in a free democratic European country.

Yanukovich in Lugansk

In 2010 Victor Yanukovich, the loser of 2004 Orange Revolution took revenge.

Five years later Victor Yanukovich, the loser-2004, took his revenge. The euphoria taking place at his election press center at Intercontinental Hotel was in dramatic contrast to the gloomy mood of Yulia Tymoshenko’s team,  holed up across the street in the Hyatt’s conference hall. Yanukovich’s speech was short and not aggressive. Following the advice of his election strategists, he told Tymoshenko’s supporters not to despair, as he would do his utmost to ensure the development and welfare of Ukraine.

Yulia Tymoshenko didn’t admit defeat. She made a short press statement in which she called on her campaign team “to fight for every vote”. I’ve never seen her so confused and pale. Usually an eloquent speaker and media darling,  on this occasion she kept quiet. I don’t know what was going on in her mind, but I think she really understood that this time Ukrainians weren’t behind her. People weren’t going to be shouting her name and supporting whatever she said. And her demand for a re-count would just fizzle out.

That night I got a call from a friend who had monitored the elections in 2004. This time he had just come back from observing an election abroad. I am so sorry, he said. It looks like you’ve lost everything you won in the Orange revolution.  We didn’t lose them overnight, I told him. We’ve been losing them for a long time, little by little.

We lost a big chunk of the “orange legacy” when the opposition came to power and started fighting with their erstwhile allies for portfolios, assets and influence. We lost a lot when the new team that had promised changes started playing by the old rules, seeing politics as a tool for personal enrichment and never as a tool for serving people who elected them. We lost more when corporate interests won over national ones. We lost it when those who took power promised fair rules to foreign investors, then kept on playing dirty. We lost it when we failed to live up to our commitments to the European community, above all when we failed to fight corruption and reform the judiciary. We lost it when some of Ukraine’s media, having managed to hold out against political pressure five years ago became totally corrupt and forgot all about fair and unbiased reporting standards. The only rule they stick by now is that of money.

As I talked to him on the phone, I was walking down to Independence Square to catch a taxi to get home. The city was empty, silent and covered with snow. Next day I woke up in a country that looked so much like Ukraine 2004.


Olesia Oleshko is a journalist based in Kiev

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