WORLD AFFAIRS.  Yesterday marked six years since the start of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution — the mass upheaval that reversed a fraudulent election, catapulted Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency and Yulia Tymoshenko to the premiership, and promised to transform the country into a modern, democratic European state. Despite expectations at the time, the Orange coalition only held for a few months. Embroiled in seemingly endless bickering, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko neglected reform and enabled the man who had been humiliated by the uprising, Viktor Yanukovich, to stage a comeback in 2010 and win the presidency.

Since then, Yanukovich, who campaigned as a moderate promising to unify the nation and fix the country, has embarked on a systematic rollback of the revolution’s ideals. He’s substituted Russia for the West, authoritarianism for democracy, and Russian supremacism for Ukrainian patriotism, thereby establishing himself as a radical willing to do anything — even deepen regional, national, ethnic, and class divides — in order to get and keep power. The many Ukrainian democrats who thought of Yanukovich as the lesser of two evils have now descended into despair — German reporter Konrad Schuller has called it “the return of fear” — and increasingly view Yanukovich’s administration as an “occupation” regime and his Party of Regions as a throwback to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

And they have a point. Established in 2001 by the former Soviet functionaries who had run Ukraine’s industrial heartland, the Donbas, for decades, the Party of Regions stole the proletarian constituency of the neo-Stalinist Communist Party of Ukraine — and, backed by tycoons with enormous holdings in the steel, coal, chemicals, and media businesses, quickly became hegemonic in southeastern Ukraine.

The Regionnaires (as party members are known) share other similarities with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Like the CPSU, the Party of Regions is a formidable vote-manufacturing machine, possessing dedicated cadres, vast resources, and unscrupulous leaders. Like the CPSU, the Party of Regions is an efficient moneymaking machine, serving as a get-rich-quick scheme for its activists, promoting the interests of Ukraine’s elites, and maintaining warm relations with organized crime. Like the CPSU, the Party of Regions is also a powerful mythmaking machine, idolizing all things Soviet, exalting Russian language, culture, history, and identity, and conferring “separate and unequal” status on their Ukrainian equivalents. And finally, the Party of Regions is inherently incompatible with democracy, the market, and rule of law, as was the CPSU. Even if Yanukovich is the bold reformer his defenders say he is, he will — like Mikhail Gorbachev — soon discover that the main obstacle to perestroika is his own party.

Although the Regionnaires may make the trains run on time, their rule — called “thug-ist” by the Russian democratic analyst Yulia Latynina — cannot make Ukraine truly modern. Small wonder that they still can’t accept the Orange Revolution as a genuine manifestation of popular will. It’s not just that the upheaval repudiated and exposed them as fraudsters. Far worse, it demonstrated that Ukrainians could and, given the chance, would resist the rule of reactionaries and authoritarians. The revolution proved that Ukrainians were mature enough politically to understand that they had rights — and that the Yanukovich people were the interlopers incapable of withstanding people power.  

Few Ukrainians today regard the Orange Revolution with more than a smirk. That’s not surprising, as the pain and disillusionment produced by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko’s incompetence are still too palpable. That said, the uprising represents one of the most important junctures in Ukraine’s modern history. The revolution brought down an authoritarian regime in an inspiring example of popular engagement; it did so peacefully; and it did so while invoking and practicing progressive political and humanitarian ideals. Future historians will doubtless depict the Orange Revolution as a major step along Ukraine’s democratic trajectory.

Those same historians will treat the Yanukovich interlude as a typical example of counterrevolution that, like all counterrevolutions, cannot succeed in fully turning back the clock. Indeed, the longer Yanukovich and the Regionnaires practice “thug-ism,” the more Ukrainians will regard the revolution’s values as those befitting a modern Ukrainian state. The residents of both the tiny village of Plesetske, outside Kiev, and the large industrial city of Kharkiv have already invoked those ideals in their ongoing protests against the Regionnaires’ manipulation of the October 31 local elections. And the tens of thousands of small business people currently demonstrating against the regressive new tax code have just issued a formal ultimatum to Yanukovich, vowing to “defend our right to life, our right to entrepreneurial activity, and other civic rights and liberties with continuing strikes and actions of civil disobedience” unless he vetoes the code.

A desire for truth, integrity, and, above all, human dignity motivated the millions of mostly young Ukrainians who took part in and supported the Orange Revolution. Not surprisingly, those values may have been best expressed by the unofficial anthem of the Revolution — a rap song by the group GreenJolly. The first stanza declares just what the young Orange revolutionaries expected from their government: “Falsifications — No! Machinations — No! Connivance — No! No to lies!” They were, of course, to be grossly disappointed.

But the second stanza gets to the heart of the matter:

We’re not chattel, we’re not fools.
We’re the sons and daughters of Ukraine.
Now or never, no more waiting:
Together we are many, we cannot be defeated.

These sentiments, so similar to the slogans of the civil rights movement in the United States, underscore the fact that the Regionnaires have no future in Ukraine’s future. Sooner or later, the next generation of Orange revolutionaries — and there always is a next generation — will realize that they too deserve to be treated as human beings.

Alexander J Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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