Three Years After: Theoretical Reflections on Ukraine's Orange Revolution

By Motyl, Alexander J. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Three Years After: Theoretical Reflections on Ukraine's Orange Revolution


Motyl, Alexander J., Harvard International Review


In late 2004, Ukraine underwent the "Orange Revolution"--several weeks of peaceful mass demonstrations that reversed a fraudulent election, catapulted a democrat to the presidency, and promised to transform the country into a modern European state. Just a few months later, the Orange coalition, led by President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was already at loggerheads, and by late 2005 it had split. Continued bickering among the Orange democrats enabled the man who had been humiliated by the Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych, to stage a spectacular comeback in mid-2006. After Yushchenko dissolved parliament and called new elections in 2007, however, a reconstituted and exceedingly shaky Orange coalition managed to win.

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This seemingly endless elite infighting marked by mudslinging, accusations of betrayal, and demagoguery was the last thing that Ukraine's population had expected from the hopeful days of 2004. Instead of smooth sailing toward Europe, Ukraine appeared to have been caught in a series of devastating storms. It is small wonder that, by late 2007, most Ukrainians turned their backs on politics and focused their energy on their personal lives. Ironically, though predictably, political apathy among the Ukrainian population results from disillusionment with the overly enthusiastic revolutionary rhetoric generated by the Orange Revolution, confirming the pragmatic, evolutionary, and thoroughly unromantic progress Ukraine has made since 2004.

The Orange Revolution as Romantic Upheaval

Popular disillusionment was the result of missed opportunities and political mistakes by the Orange leadership. It was also the product of the exalted expectations created by facing down a corrupt regime and forcing it to the popular will. There are, after all, two distinct ways in which the concept of revolution can be understood--as a popular upheaval or as a fundamental, comprehensive, and rapid change. Upheavals may or may not lead to massive change, while fundamental, comprehensive, and rapid change may or may not be caused by upheavals. Thus, the upheaval known as the French Revolution actually produced far less change than it promised. The Nazi Revolution entailed enormous change but was not produced by an upheaval. The Iranian Revolution, meanwhile, involved both an upheaval in 1978 and 1979 and a complete systemic transformation in the years that followed. Ukraine's Orange Revolution was an upheaval that did not lead to fundamental, comprehensive, and rapid change.

But like all self-styled revolutionaries who attempt to sustain a popular uprising, the Orange revolutionaries employed a romantic rhetoric that went far beyond mere upheaval. They promised a transformation of everything, immediately. Ukraine was going to join the European Union and NATO, free itself from Russia's embrace, cast all its corrupt "bandits" into jail, enjoy impeccably clean and efficient government, adopt full-scale economic reforms, experience a cultural revival, and live like the developed West. These extravagant promises were expectations that the revolutionaries, as the peaceful reformers they really were, simply could not meet. They were, thus, hoisted with their own petard. Popular disillusionment was inevitable because fundamental, comprehensive, and rapid change was never in the cards; the Orange coalition's split was inevitable because the rhetoric of revolution could only clash with the realities of Ukraine's evolutionary politics. The ancien regime represented by Yanukovych was able to return in 2006 because it had never quite left.

The Undesirability of Revolutionary Change

Ukraine is supremely fortunate that the Orange revolutionaries did not attempt to introduce fundamental, comprehensive, and rapid change. Had they tried, they would have failed, and Ukraine's population--saddled with broken institutions and violence-prone elites--would have been far worse off today than it is and would have had far fewer prospects for meaningful reform than it now has.

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