November 22 is the second anniversary of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Two years ago, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians gathered and built tent cities on Independence Square in Kyiv to protest a presidential election that had been compromised by voter intimidation, corruption and election fraud on a massive scale. This popular revolution succeeded in bringing about Ukraine’s first truly democratic elections and was a repudiation of the corruption and oligarchic nepotism of the previous Kuchma regime.
Joined together to defeat the old guard were the young, charismatic Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the eponymous BYuT party, who captured the imagination of the youth and filled the squares, and the statesman-like former banker Victor Yushchenko and his traditional, nationalist Our Ukraine party.
From a geo-strategic standpoint, the stakes in 2004 were high. While Russian President Putin engaged in his own activities to support his champions (former President Leonid Kuchma and his prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich), a bipartisan group of Washington foreign policy elite came together with the Bush Administration to both encourage and menace Messrs. Kuchma and Yanukovich to stand down the military and allow for fair elections. It succeeded, and the Orange Revolution became synonymous with a renewed sense of freedom, rule of law and Western-leaning sentiment towards inclusion in NATO and the European Union.
President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s January 2005 inauguration brought hope that Ukraine had finally turned the corner from its Soviet past and was ready to join its Central and Eastern European counterparts in progressive reform. Indeed, President Yushchenko was feted in the capitals of the West as a hero of a modern, democratic revolution.
Unfortunately, the two years since have brought disenchantment born from missed opportunities and evidence that the political landscape is still strikingly similar to its pre-Orange days. Once in power, the revolutionary zeal drained from President Yushchenko and his party. An ambitious agenda of reform became bogged down in personality clashes and political infighting, and Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s commitment to prosecute corruption became viewed as overbearing and unnecessarily burdensome to an already struggling economy. These factors led Yushchenko to dismiss Tymoshenko in September 2005.
Predictably, with little to show from his first year as president, Tymoshenko’s BYuT party crushed Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine in parliamentary elections in March 2006. Unpredictably, however, personal animosity toward Tymoshenko’s reform agenda led Yushchenko to change his stripes. Despite a popular mandate, Tymoshenko was prevented from forming a majority coalition by political back-room bartering reminiscent of the elections two years earlier. Instead, Yushchenko chose to unite with the very people whom the Orange Revolution had unseated. President Yushchenko’s choice of his former foe, Viktor Yanukovich, as prime minister over Tymoshenko was clearly one of personal politics masked as “national unity.” Not only did the choice betray the Orange Revolution, it betrayed the dignity and trust of its Western supporters, including the United States.
Many will disagree with this view; indeed, protestations abound from pundits on Ukraine, who have convinced themselves that compromise is preferable to revolution, and that those who once attempted to steal democracy can nurture it if only they are “educated” in Western governmental affairs. Most disturbing is the argument that the perceived short-term economic interests are more pressing than “messy” revolutionary reforms such as instituting rule of law in the face of crippling oligarchic corruption. Further to these facile views is that the Ukrainian economy is improving and that corruption has dropped year-on-year. It is questionable as to how (or even why) one might empirically (or even reasonably) assess such factors over a five-month period; it is astounding how quickly those pushing for revolution jumped so quickly to compromise.
Today Yushchenko is clinging to the presidency he gained in the Orange Revolution. Meanwhile, the resurgent Yanukovich has polished his image, but not his objectives. Yanukovich’s party controls parliament and is slowly dissipating Yushchenko’s powers through governmental decrees. Yanukovich’s oligarch allies are rolling back the meager progress that has been made over the last two years while taking advantage of parliamentary immunity to further expand their business empires. The pro-presidential Our Ukraine party has split and is on the verge of becoming politically irrelevant. Even Yushchenko’s core issue—NATO membership—has been pigeonholed by Yanukovich. Indeed, President Yushchenko’s place in history is in question.
Today, the only viable opposition is led by Yulia Tymoshenko, who heads the second-largest bloc in parliament. She and her party continue to uphold an agenda of political and economic reform while attempting to hold the Yanukovich-Yushchenko government accountable for its failure to end corruption.
What is the significance of the Orange Revolution’s second anniversary? It is a reminder that popular revolutions are not only rare, they are also fragile in infancy and can take many years to reach their conclusion. There is a real threat that Ukraine will remain an oligarchic-run pseudo-democracy that will not live up to the potential embodied by the tent cities of two years ago. The Ukrainian people and its increasingly collective conscience did not elevate itself only to remain governed by a Kuchma-light government.
November 22—now officially memorialized in Ukraine as “Liberty Day”—still gives hope to Ukrainians who want to see their country free of corruption and on a path to prosperity. But it is also increasingly a reminder of how long and twisted that path can be, and how vital leadership is along the way. The revolution remains orange, and continues.