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A perceptive analysis of the events of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, formerly Assistant Professor, Department of Comparative (Foreign) Literature, Kyiv Shevchenko University, Ukraine, and now Assistant Professor, Department of History, Northwestern University, USA, followed closely the recent events in Ukraine and has kindly agreed to give his assessment of the Orange Revolution in an essay written exclusively for Welcome to Ukraine Magazine.
The 2004 events in Ukraine challenge our understanding of Ukrainian history and reshape our vision of Ukrainian national identity. Is it possible for a national democratic revolution to succeed if it operates solely on the basis of legality in a country in which the institutions of legal power are manipulated by the government? Ukraine teaches us that it can. The amazingly sober behavior of protesters in Ukraine forced the Supreme Court and parliament to operate not as servile governmental puppets but as institutions committed to legal principles that will lead the country out of political turmoil. The peaceful tactics of the revolutionary strikers made the speaker of the parliament and the head of the Supreme Court cut the threads and reemerge as politicians whose decisions are based solely on legality. A “lawful revolution” seems to be an oxymoron that challenges our imagination, yet this is exactly what happened in Ukraine. While victorious Yushchenko and Tymoshenko are grappling with the burdensome heritage of the previous regime, it is crucial to ponder on a broader meaning of the Orange Revolution. One may want to emphasize five key messages of the 2004 Ukrainian upheavals.
Ukraine and Russia
While Russian pundits bend themselves backwards to prove that Ukrainian Orange Revolution was a US-sponsored enterprise, a rational-minded observer is advised to believe that it was an articulate Ukrainian “no” to Kremlin-orchestrated neo-imperialism. Russia has traditionally considered Ukraine inseparable from itself. For the last three hundred years Russia has been absorbing Ukraine, then part of Eastern Poland, capturing one segment after another, pushing Poland westward. Under the tsars, Russia invented a centennial Slavic brotherhood in which Ukraine appeared as Little Russia (Malorossia), the little sister of Great Russia, its big brother. Patronizing its new family member, Russia supplanted all traces of previous Ukrainian autonomy, assimilated Ukrainian gentry, enslaved Ukrainian peasants, and obliterated Ukrainian identity. In the 1860s–1870s Alexander II, perhaps the most liberal-minded among Russian tsars, outlawed Ukrainian language. Following the Russian tsars’ colonial attitude toward Ukraine, the Bolshevik and new Russian leaders considered Ukrainian identity a challenge to their vision of the Great Russian Empire. They could not accept the loss of abundant Ukrainian resources and the Black Sea ports. What started in mid-1920s as a major Ukrainian national renaissance that threatened Russian stance as a patronizing big brother of Slavic nations, was brutally suppressed in the early 1930s when Ukrainian intelligentsia was simply wiped out. Ukrainian political independence achieved in 1991 was an affront to Russia, a historical mistake that needed to be straightened out. Kremlin wanted to see Ukraine returning into Russia’s embrace, allowing it to re-emerge as a major European Empire. Viktor Yanukovych, deaf to Ukrainian revivalism, was a convenient puppet responsible for returning Ukrainian black sheep into the imperial flock. Ukrainian orange color, translated into Russian, implied that the country does not want any more to be a colony. And this was the first message of the Orange Revolution.
Ukraine and Europe
The 1991 demise of the USSR opened up brand new opportunities for the eastward advance of European legalism, liberalism, and democracy. For Europe to secure democratic changes in Ukraine and to incorporate Ukraine into the European Union signifies the actual, not formal demise of communism. Though in 1991 Ukraine voted for independence yet it did not exercise it appropriately. Abandoned by Europe to the mercy of its fate, in its post-1991 development Ukraine inconsistently but steadily followed Russia. Europe was closely monitoring the rise of pro-Russian and non-democratic Ukrainian oligarchs. The endemic corruption among the highest echelons of the Ukrainian government, which seemed to imitate the corruption of Russian authorities, turned Europe away from Ukraine and made the incorporation of Ukraine into the European Union an unlikely scenario. The Gongadze case signaled that for Europeans Ukraine would remain a suspicious polity on the outskirts of Europe drifting toward Asian-like autarchy. Also, Europeans realized that the Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma regime was talking legality and walking personal profit. Therefore the events of November and December, 2004, revolutionized the European perception of Ukraine. Once rank-and-file Europeans adorned Warsaw skyscrapers and London squares with orange, Europe and Ukraine established common language at least on the level of the visual. Mass support of “orange” Kyiv during solidarity campaigns in major cities across Europe sent a direct message to the European Union that Ukraine was already considered as equal by its European brethren. After December events it is only too evident that Ukrainian revolution, among other things, hammered the last nail into the coffin of European communism. Accepting Ukraine to European Union would not be a favour for Ukraine. Rather it will be a de jure confirmation of what Ukraine has proved de facto: that it is part and parcel of Europe.
New Ukrainian Revivalism
Ukraine appeared as a new polity on the European map only in 1991, yet Ukrainians have fought for their cultural and political independence for centuries. Starting from Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Cossack revolution in 1648, the people of Ukraine — peasants and gentry of the Russian Orthodox creed who as yet did not identify themselves as Ukrainians — fought for political autonomy first against Poland, then against Russia and the Soviet Union. Their fight was heavily marked by bloody attempts to change Ukraine socially and politically. Ukrainian cultural revivalism of the 1860s, 1900s, 1920s, and 1990s articulated ideas that shaped an independent Ukrainian polity either as a multi-ethnic monarchy or as a nationalist state. In November, 2004, it seemed that Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Odesa were inherently ready to accept Russian multi-ethnic imperialism whereas Kyiv, Lviv, and Ivano-Frankivsk preferred the nationalist model. Yet the December, 2004, events in Ukraine fit neither the previous history of Ukrainian revolts nor Ukrainian political theories. It turned out that the so-called Ukrainian split into East and West was an invention, manipulated by Russian politicians and overplayed in the Western media. The governmentally controled Ukrainian and Russian media transformed the alleged East-West rift into political weapons against the opposition while Ukrainians by and large remained bilingual and Soviet-minded, the differences between the two parts of the country being more cultural and economic than political. The Orange Revolution triggered the awakening of the nation bringing imaginary East and West together. Russian-speaking industrial workers and miners from Donbas and Ukrainian-speaking students from the western city of Lviv discovered that they belong to one and the same nation. Instead of the clashes between them that the government anticipated, if not orchestrated, the two groups began to talk to one another. Their dialog brought hopes that bridges of mutual understanding would soon emerge. Two months of street dialogue fostered the birth of a new self-awareness of nationhood. That self-awareness was the third most important achievement of the Orange Revolution the ramifications of which is difficult to overestimate.
The Plotters and the Diplomats
Both governmentally supported Viktor Yanukovych and the acting president Leonid Kuchma schemed an oligarchic coup in the country comparable to the communist coup of the KGChP in Moscow in August 1991, but based on manipulated legality. Their plan was to orchestrate the election of the pro-governmental candidate, and after his election to appoint Kuchma (who had already spent two terms in the presidential chair) as prime-minister, then to pass a political reform transforming Ukraine into a parliamentary republic with the prime-minister assuming full power. They also planned to appoint the most notorious oligarchs to ministerial positions finalizing the transformation of the country into a feudal neocolonial oligarchy. To achieve this, they shuffled the opposition media, subjected the news coverage to almost complete governmental control, and had the best Kremlin image-makers aggressively campaigning for the pro-governmental candidate. That most oligarchs and their governmental puppets originated in the Eastern industrial districts of Ukraine contributed to their financial might that seemed unbreakable. Paradoxically, the government became trapped once Yushchenko turned the tables on it. Having incorporated most radical groups in the opposition Nasha Ukrayina (Our Ukraine) block, Viktor Yushchenko flatly rejected political radicalism as a means to solving the political crisis. Rather he preferred the golden path between parliamentary struggle and revolutionary radicalism. Due to his double identity as a populist leader supported by at least 17 million people in Ukraine and a parliamentary figure unfamiliar with underground activity, Yushchenko managed to channel the revolutionary events into a battle for legality and rule of law. His well-balanced maneuvering was equidistant from the government’s iron-clad communist-type stance and the pioneering radicalism of his closest associates. Yushchenko’s rationalism saved the country from imminent bloodshed. How could it happen that an opposition leader who had been plotted against to be poisoned and removed from the political arena emerged as a revolutionary diplomat? The answer to this question pending, one has to underscore a brand new revolutionary strategy unheard of in the history of European rebellions — the strategy that constitutes the fourth novelty of the Orange Revolution. It is clear that the opposition played to win by managing both the revolutionary Independence Square and the Ukrainian Rada, the parliament. Ukraine demonstrated how to transform the revolution into a parliamentary and constitutional reform, a powerful lesson of democracy which has not yet been entirely understood.
The People of Ukraine
While the United States, European Union, and Russia argued about how to solve the crisis in Ukraine, thousands of people firmly stand in the main square of Kyiv, demonstrating their stamina and astonishing commitment to democratic values. Their warm and cheerful orange ribbons, the symbolic color of the opposition, sharply contrasted with the frigid temperatures they endure. In December, 2004, the future of Ukraine depended little on the negotiations between the acting president Leonid Kuchma with the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, and even less on Kuchma’s talks with the Russian and Polish presidents or the head of the European Union. Rather it entirely depended on the will and steadfastness of the Ukrainians protesting an ignominious election fraud orchestrated by the government. Among those who took to the streets were students, teachers, government workers, computer operators, engineers, small businessmen, rock and sports celebrities, renowned writers and poets, and village and urban dwellers of dozens of nationalities and religious beliefs. Instead of irritation, bitterness, and well-grounded revolutionary rage, the protesters’ faces shine with happiness, friendliness, and love. Citizens of Kyiv said that the city has never been as polite, understanding, and helpful as now. Pensioners who could hardly make both ends meet purchased coffee and medicine for the picketers. Small-scale restaurant owners provided hundreds of protesters with free soup and porridge. The sense of unity was overwhelming. “There are so many of us on the main square,” exclaimed a thirty-something literary scholar from Kyiv. “We are doing our best to help people in the streets,” said a teacher of history in her sixties. “A new nation is being born,” insisted a professor who has left the quiet of academe for the noisy streets, “Things will never be the same in this country.” Perhaps a Ukrainian poet captured an overwhelming feeling of people in the streets when, as if protesting the assumed attitude to the Ukrainians, he wrote to the author: “This is a people, this in not a riff-raff (bydlo).” Contrary to the claims of Kremlin-sponsored political analysts, the rank-and-file folks in the streets were not choosing between the Russian and Ukrainian languages. The Orange Revolution was bilingual. Nor, as European analysts have said, were they making a choice between returning to the aegis of Russia and falling into the embrace of the European Union. Even the most stalwart supporters of the opposition understood that 200-year old economic ties to Russia will continue to go along with integration into the European Union. For the people in the streets of Kyiv the choice was simpler. Do they want to live in a totalitarian state where the power manipulates the will of its people or to build a democracy that respects the choices of its people? The answer of the Maydan-dwellers emphasized what Ukrainians already have become: citizens in their own country.
Photo by Oleksiy Onishchuk
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