Two years after the Orange revolution: Ukraine in a funk

Alexander Motyl
22 December 2006

Two years ago, in November-December 2004, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians peacefully occupied downtown Kyiv in protest against the falsification of presidential elections. That popular uprising, known as the Orange revolution, ushered in a pro-democratic government headed by President Viktor Yushchenko and prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko; it appeared to herald Ukraine's decisive turn toward democracy and the west.

Two years later, the euphoria that accompanied the revolution and the hopes that it spawned have dissipated. The popular mood ranges from despair, anger, and cynicism among the revolution's supporters to confusion, disappointment, and disillusionment among the revolution's opponents. Increasingly, Ukrainians are giving up on all their leaders and treating their promises as empty words.

Alexander Motyl is professor of political science and deputy director of the Center for Global Change and Governance at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Among his books are Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993) and Imperial Ends: the decline, collapse, and revival of empires (Colombia 2001).

Also by Alexander Motyl on openDemocracy:

"How Ukrainians became citizens"
(November 2004)

"Democracy is alive in Ukraine"
(September 2005)

"Ukraine vs Russia: the politics of an energy crisis" (January 2006)

"Ukraine's new political complexion"
(March 2006)

"Ukraine and Russia: divergent political paths" (17 August 2006)

What went wrong?

The irony is that Ukraine is actually doing well to moderately well in almost every respect. The economy is robust. GDP is set to grow about 5.5% in 2006 - despite a twofold increase in gas prices - rebounding from half that rate in 2005. Foreign direct investment (FDI) should exceed $3.5 billion, a massive increase over previous years. The currency is stable, the current account deficit is manageable, disposable income has grown, and the budget deficit is under control.

Democratic institutions are also consolidating. The parliamentary elections on26 March 2006 were fair and free and, as important, were widely expected to be fair and free. The subsequent three-month wrangling between potential coalition partners was oftentimes infantile and always annoying, but it transpired according to the rules of the game. The eventual coming to power of the "Anti-Crisis Coalition" headed by prime minister Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions struck the Orange revolution's supporters as a repudiation of the revolution's gains, but it took place legally and was made possible by those very gains.

The subsequent power struggle between Yanukovych and Yushchenko - the two dramatis personae of the Orange revolution - testified as much to the flawed constitutional reform that increased the powers of the parliament and prime minister without adequately delineating their, and the president's, limits as to the power-grabbing proclivities of the Party of Regions. In any case, that tussle is also taking place according to the rules.

The media are lively and independent. Neither Yushchenko, nor Yanukovych, nor Tymoshenko are spared constant scrutiny and criticism. A constitutional court empowered to resolve just the sort of power struggles bedeviling the government has finally emerged - after parliament had refused for one and a half years to appoint its share of justices lest they declare the constitutional reform deal reached by Orange and anti-Orange forces during the revolution unconstitutional and re-empower the president.

Civil-society organisations remain vibrant - from credit unions to non-governmental organisations to rock-bands to church groups to student clubs. Perhaps most important, Ukraine's young are smart, independent, cosmopolitan, and cynical about authority - attitudes that bode ill for possible elite attempts to reestablish a paternalistic regime.

All this, and yet Ukraine's population remains gripped by a sense of malaise. People have lost faith in the present, and they are losing confidence in the future. Some Ukrainian intellectuals suggest that this growing passivity will either fail to resist what they believe is Yanukovych's inevitable turn to authoritarianism or, perhaps worse, at some point even welcome a strong man promising to get the country moving. Optimists counter by pointing to the growth of institutions that, they argue, will both constrain elites from acting too undemocratically and ensure that Ukrainian civil society will remain strong - even if Ukrainians believe that it is weak.

The malaise's five sources

The malaise has five causes. The first is that popular expectations of immediate, rapid, and comprehensive change after the Orange revolution greatly outstripped the reality of the changes instituted by the Orange governments in 2005-06. Those governments made a difference, they did change Ukraine for the better - but that difference and that change could only be less than what the population had hoped for. Not surprisingly, Yushchenko is now widely reviled, while Tymoshenko, whom he fired in September 2005, has come to embody the hopes of those desiring radical change.

The second cause is the seemingly endless elite squabbling that has characterised Ukrainian politics since at least mid-2005. The 26 March parliamentary elections should have produced an Orange coalition, but bad faith, excessive ambitions, and the unwillingness to cut deals produced the programmatically bizarre Anti-Crisis Coalition of the pro-oligarchic and generally pro-business Party of Regions and the antediluvian and unreformed Communist Party and the business-sceptical Socialist Party.

Yanukovych promised an end to the squabbling and forceful governance, but his government has proven equally prone to tussles over personnel, contradictory signals, and policy stagnation. Unfortunately, his opponents - grouped in the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine - have done no better.

Tymoshenko and her allies in the parliament represent the main opposition but have still to act in a critically constructive way and offer genuine alternatives to government policy. Tymoshenko's calling the government's planned cuts in social spending "genocidal", for instance, showed just how far she has to go to become a mature opposition leader. Our Ukraine, meanwhile, has gone into a free fall, unwilling and unable to reinvent itself in the aftermath of its disastrous attempt to head a coalition government by playing off the Party of Regions against the Tymoshenko Bloc -and losing everything in the process.

The third cause is distrust of Yanukovych and his party. Yanukovych and the Party of Regions tried to change their image, with the assistance of the veteran American political consultant, Paul Manafort. Yanukovych now sports better clothes and, in an attempt to dispel his pro-Russian reputation, makes an effort to speak in Ukrainian.

His speeches, statements, and interviews say all the right things and studiously avoid President Vladimir Putin's predilection for alarming rhetoric. Yanukovych has even openly endorsed the values of the Orange revolution and, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, supported Ukraine's membership of Nato - after having told the alliance in September that Ukraine wasn't ready for the Membership Action Plan.

Not surprisingly, Yanukovych's detractors remain unpersuaded, point to the mismatch between words and deeds, and decry what they consider his seeming willingness to sacrifice Ukraine's best interests to better relations with Russia. Ardent supporters of the Orange revolution retain a visceral dislike of him and tend to interpret every one of his actions as indicative of evil motives. The fact that the power behind the throne is Ukraine's richest oligarch, the Donetsk-based billionaire, Rinat Akhmetov, a man with a decidedly checkered past who claims to want to move Ukraine's economy toward Europe, only increases suspicions. But even a substantial chunk of Yanukovych's electoral base in Ukraine's southeast has serious doubts about his ability to improve the economy, unite the country, and govern effectively. Thus far, Yanukovych has done little to assuage those doubts. And blaming his predecessors for his own government's failings is beginning to wear thin.

The fourth cause of the malaise is the belief that the Orange revolution's primary promise - to implement justice by throwing the "bandits into jail" and to empower the people - has proven hollow. The bandits - whether Yanukovych the ex-felon and his thuggish Donbas pals, the high-flying Akhmetov who was elected parliamentary deputy, the tycoons bankrolling Our Ukraine and the Tymoshenko Bloc, or Vitaly Hayduk, the Donbas oligarch and Akhmetov opponent whom Yushchenko appointed to head his national security council - are not just around, still. They're running politics.

Optimists argue that having the rich play openly formal governmental roles is preferable to their pulling strings in the background or to their languishing in jails. That way, they can be kept accountable, at least to some degree, they can channel their formidable resources into legitimate political activities, and they can balance the equally dubious personal ambitions of the politicians. That may very well be the case, but it's no surprise that the Ukrainian people, who expected their country to join Europe, become fully democratic, and escape Russia's grip, feel irrelevant and betrayed.

The fifth cause concerns Europe. During the Orange revolution Ukrainians either expected or feared that Europe would welcome them with open arms. But nothing of the sort has happened. The European Union did declare that Ukraine had a market economy, and it does hope to sign a new partnership agreement with Ukraine by 2008. But the EU has signally failed to give Ukraine a clear signal of its willingness to take it in - even if at some point in the distant future.

Yushchenko implored the EU to do just that on the eve of its summit in Finland - arguing that it could play the role of a lighthouse or guiding star for Ukraine - but the EU failed to budge. Poland supports Ukraine's EU aspirations, but the prickly Polish government has few friends in Europe. Finland and the Baltic states have also been supportive, but they lack the weight of Germany and France, which are manifestly indifferent, preferring good terms with Russia, and especially the state-controlled gas giant, Gazprom, to close relations with a budding democracy such as Ukraine.

To be sure, Europe has its own worries - a fact that Ukrainians often overlook. The French are distracted by forthcoming presidential elections and the possibility of a female president (which raises the intriguing possibility that, by 2009, France, Germany, the United States, and Ukraine could all have women leaders.) The Germans worry about where Angela Merkel's reforms might lead. The Italians fret about their country's inability to reform itself. The Dutch are obsessed with veils. The Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks, and Czechs are trying to cope with bad governments (or in the last case, effectively none).

The EU has to finesse Romania's and Bulgaria's imminent membership, while trying to prevent the Turkish "train-wreck" that the EU's own irresponsible policies toward Cyprus and Turkey directly brought about. And the United States, labelled Ukraine's "strategic partner" even by Yanukovych, is focused on unfolding defeat in Iraq and the possibility of failure in North Korea and Iran.

It's small wonder, then, that Ukrainians are in a funk. Their leaders look incompetent at best and malevolent at worst, and no one - and especially those countries that wax eloquent about the virtues of soft power - seems to care.

Russia, and Ukrainians, to the rescue

Russiam, of course, does care about Ukraine - but only Ukraine's deeply conservative, ethnically Russian population in Luhansk or Crimea might be inclined to see that as an indisputably good thing. The pro-Orange forces tend to see Russia as the source of all bad things. Yanukovych's supporters have always taken a far more sanguine view of Russian intentions, but even they must be having second thoughts today. It's hard to have any illusions about Gazprom's boundless ambitions anymore. And no one living in Ukraine can fail to appreciate that their country's energy dependence on Russia is a source of growing instability and insecurity.

Yanukovych's government, which criticized its Orange predecessors for striking a bad gas deal with Russia at the height of the January 2006 "gas war", has done little better. Like the Orange governments, it agreed to a price rise - from $95 per thousand cubic meters to $130 in 2007 - in exchange for a greater market presence in Ukraine for the shadowy Gazprom-controlled middleman organisation, RosUkrEnergo. And, like the Orange governments, it is pursuing energy-diversification negotiations with Poland, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan and encouraging foreign investment in the development of Ukraine's supposedly ample own oil and gas deposits.

No less disturbing, even for Yanukovych's eastern Ukrainian supporters, are several developments in Russia. These include Moscow's strongarm tactics toward Georgia, Moldova, and the unabashedly pro-Russian Belarus (whose dictatorial president, Alexsander Lukashenko, has responded with, of all things, a resoundingly nationalist defense of Belarusian sovereignty); the alarming outbreaks of chauvinism and xenophobia in a variety of Russia cities; the officially encouraged mass expulsion of Georgians from Moscow in the aftermath of Russia's cold war with Georgia; and the recent spate of killings of Kremlin critics.

The professional "hits" are especially worrisome. Whether or not the Kremlin was actually responsible for the assassinations, the KGB's long-time record of "wet works" and Russia's sharp turn to the right make it all too easy to believe that it was. Russian and Ukrainian rumour mills have constructed fantastic interpretations that, their veracity aside, all serve to discredit Putin and his government - as either complicit or incapable of controlling rogue elements.

The killings have special meaning for Ukrainians, who know that Anna Politkovskaya was born Hanna Mazepa, the daughter of Ukrainian diplomats in New York. They also know that the poisoning by radioactive polonium of the former KGB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, in London is all too eerily reminiscent of the poisoning by dioxin of their own president on the eve of the Orange revolution. At that time Yushchenko's domestic opponents used to quip that he had probably eaten some spoiled food or that the poisoning had been staged for political reasons. Even his most fanatical and closed-minded detractors must now be having doubts about the benign nature of Russian power.

The growing suspicion of Russia and growing disillusionment with Europe leave Ukraine and Ukrainians with no choice but to rely on themselves - a turn of phrase that even Yanukovych has adopted. The doubts may therefore turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The expectation of salvation from east or west was always illusory, and it arguably deterred Ukraine from making some of the tough choices that it still has to make.

The main task before the government is further liberalisation of the economy and decentralisation of the state. The government is still too heavily involved in running key sectors of the economy, and government regulations remain far too many and far too burdensome - the result being economic inefficiency and bureaucratic corruption. Ukraine is also much too centralised, and the administrative structure it inherited from Soviet times is no longer appropriate for a democracy and market economy.

Besides, the government is far too ineffectual to run too many things well. Joining the World Trade Organisation would break some of these habits. Yanukovych says he expects Ukraine to enter the WTO in early 2007. His critics doubt his sincerity, but he probably means it - if only because Akhmetov knows that his own wealth depends on Ukraine's ability to integrate into the world economy.

The expectation of salvation from Ukraine's government was also illusory, and it has deterred Ukrainians from recognising that only they, and not their incompetent elites, can build a real democracy and a genuinely prosperous society. The main task before the population is thus to pursue their economic, social, and cultural interests as if there were no government to rely on, to plead with, and to expect to save the day.

A mixed legacy

Old Soviet paternalistic habits die hard, but growing self-reliance may already be happening -thanks in no small part to the Orange revolution's empowerment of large segments of the population. A few examples may suggest that, despite elite squabbling in Kyiv, life goes on in ways that justify a cautious optimism about Ukraine's future.

The city of Lviv now has four branches of the Rotary Club, each of which consists of self-confident and affluent business people who know they have the power to change things and recognize that they do not need the government to do so. The Kyiv-based newspaper, Day, recently organised a student conference, consisting of young political scientists from four regional universities, in Odessa. The students spent several days arguing, disagreeing, and learning to bridge their differences - in an undertaking that could herald the emergence of a national student dialogue.

One civic organisation, disturbed by the absence of Ukrainian-language films in Ukraine, decided to start a petition demanding that foreign films be dubbed into Ukrainian and not just Russian. Much to their surprise, the organisers collected 600 signatures in just two days.

Perhaps the most impressive example of civic activism is, paradoxically, the parliament's adoption of a law designating the terror-famine of 1932-33, in which several million Ukrainians died, a genocide. That wouldn't have happened if Ukraine's intellectuals hadn't been arguing the case for the last fifteen years, thereby creating a discursive force that even sceptics couldn't resist. Accordingly, the Party of Regions and the Communists, not wanting to be seen opposing an apple-pie issue, abstained from the parliamentary vote.

The news from Ukraine is therefore mixed. The population is demoralised, but, with continued economic growth, foreign direct investment, a critical press, a fire-breathing Russia conveniently demonstrating that the alternative to democracy really is lousy, and a little luck, that demoralisation may not matter too much.

In any case, it may not impede ongoing positive trends within society. Despite their funk, despite - or because of - their declared disillusionment with politics and politicians, Ukrainians may have finally figured out what the real meaning of the Orange revolution was: that an empowered population can, and should, decide its own fate.


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