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Last Updated: 02/23/2005
The Orange Revolution
Muzaffar Suleymanov

Some doubted that the opposition could pull off the so-called "Orange Revolution" in the Ukraine. But with the elections complete and the dust clearing, pro-democracy reformer Viktor Yushchenko sits in the presidency. Here Suleymanov explores what went right for the opposition, what went wrong for the establishment, and why Russian influence just wasn't strong enough.

In the final months of 2004, the world witnessed how Ukraine, following the Georgian example, had its own democratic revolution. The Georgian people had established the precedent of democratic change on the territory of the former Soviet Union; yet the Georgian Rose revolution took significant lessons from the East European velvet revolutions that ousted Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980 s. The fact that President Saakashvilli of Georgia and the former President Havel of Czechoslovakia had visited Ukraine several times during the political stand-off there means that the oppositional presidential candidate and his team were given advice on how to conduct a democratic revolution similar to successful ones in the past. Hence there has not been much difference either in tactics or in the outcomes.

Rather, there are many signs that point at the similarities between the events. Following the Georgian example, the Ukrainian political opposition found its own color orange and is known for distributing oranges among the protesting public. Similar to Georgia, Ukraine has seen one of the major changes in its political life thanks to the role of the masses, which simply demanded change. And like Mikhail Saakashvilli, Viktor Yushchenko received much political support from the West. The list of similarities could go on and on, but without going into details it is nevertheless worth mentioning several key points relating to cause and external influence both of which played significant roles that defined the result. No doubt the Orange revolution will soon see the peak of study by world political analysts and as a result will be included in the near future into many books on modern political theory and international relations. However, seizing the moment and opportunity I will try to make my own short description/analysis of the events.

Stolen Elections

Owing to the media coverage of the Ukrainian Presidential elections during the aftermath of the October round, we know that the governing regime falsified the elections results. Political scientists call this act stolen elections, [i] i.e. expropriation of the election results from one candidate/party (usually representing opposition) by another (which is mostly the state/governing regime). The fraud can have different forms change of the marked ballots, forceful imposition of the choice to be made, manipulation of the potential electorate (including bribing), deception by the Central Elections Committee, and so on. In other words, the Machiavellian concept of the justified means finds its applicability during elections that take place in non-democratic societies. According to Harvey Feldman member of the NDI observers team to Ukraine pro-Yanukovich forces relied on all the possible means of fraud to ensure the victory of the candidate. In his article Stealing Elections in Ukraine[ii] Feldman writes, that

The reports of the international observer mission vary from the simply depressing outright intimidation by thugs, all of whom regardless of location seem to favor exactly the same style of black jacket to the frankly ludicrous. One observer discovered that some 90 ballots he had seen marked were later found to be blank. Trying one of the pens used in the voting booth, he saw that the ink marks vanished after about 20 minutes.

Similar observation might be found in other sources covering the event. The Economist[iii], for example, published an article saying that, There was fraudulent use of absentee ballots, election monitors were ejected and turnout figures as high as 98% were recorded in parts of Donetsk, Mr. Yanukovich's home region. [iv] And there are many more articles pointing at the fraud just google the elections in Ukraine and see what turns up. But this is not the point. Rather, the point is that once the election results were made public, the Ukrainian opposition figured out the fraud and held the state responsible. Thanks to the support given by the independent observers, international actors (such as US, EU, OSCE, and others), and the loyal public, Victor Yushchenko the Western-oriented candidate was able to have the election results annulled and a new round of elections scheduled for December. Yet this came only after weeks of political struggle waged in the courts, government cabinets, and in the streets of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. If the current and former politicians waged the former struggle, the latter took a form of non-violent protests staged by the Ukrainian people. And it was the cooperation of and mutual understanding between the two social classes that enabled Victor Yushchenko to become the Ukrainian President. When analyzing Eastern European and Georgian democratic revolutions and comparing them to the recent Ukrainian events, one realizes that democratic change is unlikely in an authoritarian state unless there is cooperation between the different social strata and mutual realization of the necessity for change. In the absence of that, success would be difficult even if everybody knew that elections were stolen.

Role of Russia

When talking about the case of Ukraine, one should also not forget about the role played by Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet state Moscow has been trying to restore its lost influence over the capitals of now-independent states. This has been a difficult and painstaking process owing to the fact that Boris Eltsyn the first Russian President initiated the collapse of the Ukrainian state. Furthermore, certain nationalist elements within the state were applauding the divorce of Moscow from the former Soviet republics. Alexander Solzhenitsyn the famous Soviet dissident and an author of GULAG Archipelago once said that Russia no more needs the states of Central Asia since Russia has nothing in common with them. According to Olimova, Solzhenitsyn s attitude has become a stable stereotype in the Russian public mentality. [v] This seems also, however, to have been the 1990 s attitude towards the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union, which has been changing since 2001.

After Russia lost its battle in Central Asia to the West in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent creation of US and NATO bases in the region, it was in Moscow s interest to keep its eye on the former Soviet republics. In order to do so, Moscow opened its military bases in Kyrgyzstan (30 km away from the American Ganci air base) and then in Tajikistan. Another political battle lost to the West was that over Georgia and its election of a Western-oriented president. The current standoff between Moscow and Tbilisi over the status of Abhasia and South Osetia the two autonomous and pro-Russian republics within Georgia shows that Russia is working to restore its super-power image within former Soviet territory. The overall observation of the Russian near-abroad politics, therefore, indicates that the Georgian-style democratic revolutions are not welcome in Kremlin. And this has been defining the Moscow-Kiev relationship since long before the October 2004 elections.

After the collapse of the USSR, Moscow seemed to have treated Kiev as the young brother. And there are no arguments to that since both Russia and Ukraine have many things in common, including history, mentality, and Slavic origins. When talking about the Moscow Kiev relationship, however, one should not forget that since 1991 this was a relationship between the two independent states each of which was trying to form its own foreign and domestic policies. Without going into a detailed study, it is necessary to point out that Moscow was interested in the loyalty rather than the dissent of Kiev. The latter refers to the cooperation of Ukraine with the West and possible incorporation of the former into the European institutions.


The assertion that Russia preferred Viktor Yanukovich to Viktor Yushchenko as a President of Ukraine could be supported through President Putin s question-and-answer sessions on Ukrainian television. According to a BBC report, President Putin praised the work of the country's present Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich. [vi] Then while visiting Ukraine to take part in the 60th anniversary of liberation of the state from the Nazi occupation on the eve of the Presidential elections, he clarified his position on the issue. Analyzing the visit, the same BBC report says that Russia has made it clear it would like the prime minister to become Ukraine's next president. [vii] Despite President Putin s expectations, however, Viktor Yushchenko won the race. This brings up the question of whether Moscow was able to help the other Viktor.

According to my understanding of the issue, the election results were unexpected yet unavoidable for Russia. The results were unexpected because of the open Russian support of Viktor Yanukovich. President Putin s visit to Kiev and his praise of then Prime Minister Yanukovich made it clear that the Russian minority in Ukraine was not alone. Endorsing Yanukovich in his talk, Putin sent a message to the potential electorate on whom to vote for, and he made it clear that Russia would ensure the election results. This message was addressed to the supporters of the both political camps. Furthermore, the intention of the message was to change the minds of those supporting Yanukovich and to help those who had not made their decisions. Having certain political authority and respect in Ukraine, President Putin was thus trying to make sure that things would go the way he would like them to go, and he did not expect the reverse.

I am saying that the election results were unavoidable because the stakes were high enough. According to the analysis of the two political leaders, Yushchenko seemed to have better view of Ukraine than Yanukovich. The fact that the former is Western-oriented shows that with him Ukraine might have a better future. Possible inclusion into the European Union and NATO meant that he would have to ensure that Ukraine meets European standards. In contrast, Yanukovich s pro-Russian stand implied that Moscow would retain its position of the big brother and that change would be slow in coming. In addition to that, election of Yanukovich would have meant that those with political positions under Kuchma would retain their power and oppose anything that might undermine it. To put it simply, the choice for the electorate to make was between potential integration into Europe and compliance with Moscow. The weeks of protests and political struggle culminating in the December round of elections showed that the Ukrainian people had made their choice. And that choice was unavoidable given the ten years of widespread corruption under the former President Kuchma. Despite the Russian influence and will, people gave their support to Viktor Yushchenko and his team who promised to bring change. Driven by the Georgian example they made their democratic choice and helped shape Ukrainian policy. And that was unavoidable.

Implications for Central Asia

Even with the Ukrainian president finally elected, the issue is not over. Similar to the other political events that result in revolutionary change, the Ukrainian elections have certain implications for the rest of the former Soviet Union in general and for Central Asia in particular. That Viktor Yushchenko and his supporters were able to achieve their goals despite the regime s opposition means that the spirit of democracy has successfully entered the formerly totalitarian domain. Furthermore, the fact that two democratic revolutions have now taken place in post-Soviet territory indicates a trend that should not be dismissed as a coincidence.

As has been already pointed out, there was a certain amount of cooperation between the democratic forces in Georgia and Ukraine. This means that the long-awaited transition towards democracy has started moving on former Soviet territory, and it would be foolish to ignore it. Both democratic forces and their non-democratic opponents realize that the wind of change is blowing and that it might be difficult to stop it. Rather, it is a matter of time and work. While the former seems to be coming soon, the latter requires commitment and cooperation. Both regimes and their opponents do realize this as well.

Responding to the signals sent by the Georgian revolution, authoritarian regimes of Central Asia started to implement policies to prevent the domino effect. Realizing that masses played a vital role while staging non-violent protests and demanding change, all of the regional governments restricted the right for peaceful association. Adapting their legislation regimes prohibited mass gatherings in front of the government buildings and required written request to be submitted in advance of the protest. Furthermore, opposition leaders, their groups, and activities have been closely watched by the respective security forces. And, last but not the least, oppositional parties and candidates have not been denied registration for parliamentary elections. This is a both recent and general trend in all of the Central Asian countries. (To be continued )


[i] See for example Thompson, Marc R., and Philipp Kuntz, Stolen Election: The Case of the Serbian October, Journal of Democracy, vol. 15, N 4, October 2004, also available on-le at They explain the concept as following: “Elections are considered stolen when a regime hinders an opposition victory through blatant manipulation of the vote count or through the annulment of the electoral results.” [ii] Feldman, Harvey, Stealing Elections in Ukraine, Capitalism Magazine, Dec 3, 2004, also available at [iii] While doing my research on the topic and reading articles published in the Economist last year I realized that in the issues prior to the October 2004 elections, analysts of the magazine did not believe in democratic change in Ukraine. Rather, they were arguing that the Ukrainian people could not be compared to the Georgians. “History has inculcated a certain resigned patience among Ukrainians. Like the other lands between the Baltic and the Black Sea, Ukraine has suffered 700 years of invasion and conquest, from the Mongols to the Nazis.” See The Economist, Oct 30, 2004. Apparently contributors to this issue believed that the history of the state might predict its future, which proved to be wrong. [iv] The Economist, To the Wrong Victor the Spoils?, Nov 27, 2004 [v] Olimova, Saodat, Tajikistan — Russia: From “Divorce” To “Integration”, Central Asia and the Caucasus on-line journal, Center for Social and Political Studies (Sweden), also available on-line at [vi] “Putin praises Ukraine's leader,” report by Helen Fawkes, BBC correspondent in Kiev, also available on-line at [vii] Ibid.