The Orange Revolution in Ukraine

 

By
Taras Mazyar

July, 2005

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

The short version of the Orange Revolution is well known: At the end of 2004, Ukrainians peacefully and joyfully rose up against the discredited regime of president Leonid Kuchma following a disputed presidential election purportedly won by a disgraced candidate, then Prime-Minister Viktor Yanukovich. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians poured into the streets of Ukraine's capital city of Kyiv to reject the claim that the government-backed candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, had won the presidential election run-off.

Ukrainians gathered en masse to insist that Viktor Yushchenko, the internationally recognized winner of the poll, be allowed to fulfill his mandate. Kyiv turned orange, as everyone from shopkeepers to taxi drivers to bank presidents adopted Yushchenko's campaign color as their own. After 17 days of loud but orderly protest, the newly emboldened Supreme Court ordered a repeat of the presidential run-off. Less than two weeks later, Yushchenko celebrated his victory in that poll. In one month, the Ukrainian people had reset their country's political and geographical orientation and had demonstrated their support for freedom, democracy and truth. The "power of the people" had triumphed - a point clear to anyone who had visited Kyiv during the previous weeks.

Kyiv

I arrived in Kyiv from Notre Dame, Indiana a few weeks before the third and the last run-off elections. Coming to Maidan (Independence Square in the downtown of Kyiv) I was curious to watch all the unfolding drama and people which I had been monitoring on a TV and Internet during December 2004. Coming to my aunt, Maria, a native Kyivan, I found out that her small apartment was full of people - all of them came from different cities of Ukraine to participate in the revolution. This small apartment united many different people from different regions - a deacon from Transcarpathian region (from West of Ukraine), one young man from the Crimeria (South of Ukraine) and two students from Lugansk (East of Ukraine). I was wondering how easily the common idea of revolution united these different people. As Maria told me, they left everyday at 8 a.m., to go to Maidan and usually came back late at night to rejuvenate their strength against frost and prepare for the new day of struggle. In spite of the fact that there were a lot of people in the apartment, they found some space for me. Sharing my excitement, she asked me to stay for a couple of days.

During my stay in Kyiv I met my old friends, journalists from the Ukrainian People's Party (which was part of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine block), who told me that Yushchenko's election headquaters was preparing for a new, third run-off. They were anticipating new fraud, violations of election law and public order. So they planned to organize in the regions of the Coordination Centers which would be mandated to collect information from the voters, observers, and political parties about violations of election law during election day and the following night while the votes would be counted. I agreed to organize such a Coordination Center in Lviv.

Maidan was having a night vigil too. Some people were sleeping, others one were trying to avoid severe frostbite by building campfires. Youth groups were playing with snowballs, warding off the sleep and cold. However, in the stillness and among the many tents which covered the Hreschatyk, unrest was felt. Every minute, we were anticipating the worst. Any minute from the dark side of the street, the militia and militaries could appear. Any minute blood could be shed.

Students and business people were the first who descended on the capital-city. They were the immediate victims of corruption and relentless pressure from local governments. They represented a new generation of Ukrainians who could not put a blind eye to persecution, fear of prisons, deportation or expulsion. This kind of fear was deeply buried in the souls of those people, whose families or who persconally had severely handicapped and broken by the Soviet system.

Long lines of buses and private cars moved into Kyiv from all directions. Some people - students, nuns, inhabitants of local villages waited by the road to be picked up on the way, because all the tickets for train had "disappeared" and were not for sale. Who was funding all these buses to go to the capital? Afterwards, this question of who was sponsoring the "joyride" would cause a lot of discussions and hypotheses. However on this day people forfeited their three-day salary and transferred support to those who were at the Maidan. From the very first day of the revolution, the food and warm clothing supplies were being offered in the cities of Ukraine. Tourist and transportation firms gave all their vehicles and even cut a number of intercity buses, altered their itineraries within all cities on the route- "to Kyiv". At the start of the revolution, the vehicles heading for Kyiv were being stopped by police at checkpoints, where they blocked the roads going into Kyiv. However it was impossible to stop every car and every person. This night the traffic was hampered only by snow.

Flowers on the Shields

The Maidan became more and more crowded. Now everybody knew that it was the right thing to do. The daily meetings by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko (the opposition's leaders) emphasized on the peaceful character of our struggle. The government's security forces surrounded the Presidential Administration building. The reporters from BBC asked women, who were standing in front of the police barricades holding hands whether they were being called to struggle by our leaders. The people replied in unison,"Yes, we were called to the struggle but not to battle." Here stood students and elderly persons, managers and bankers, wrapped in the clothing they brought from home or which they found at Maidan. They did not come to ask for bread, they had jobs or their own businesses. They came to stand for truth. And their dignity.

But everyone realized that the young men in police helmets standing in front of the crowd were also human beings and somebody's children and they were simply doing their job too. Therefore, everyone tried to keep calm and not to fear. The fear was present in the first days when young girls and women brought orange flowers to color shields of the soldiers. Barricades and trucks loaded with sand blocked up the narrow streets. The purpose of the trucks was to act as a buffer against attack. The girls were lifted up onto the barricades and lowered to within a of the shield's barrier. How many lines of the police were standing to protect the criminal government is very difficult to quantify. When the ladies put the flowers in the hole in the shields and decorated them with colorful stripes, they did not know what to expect - what orders were given to these "people's protectors", which now appeared from the other side of the crowd.

According to Ulyana Drobna, one of the ladies, "that day the shields were lifted up high, helmets were closed and their eyes were hidden by the frosted glass helmets. The day I was there it was different - they were watching us, young ladies, and hardly forced themselves not to smile. Sometimes they couldn't help smiling when we sang songs to them and exclaimed "Please smile". The colonel smoked peacefully along with representatives of the opposition when we adjusted the icons of Jesus and St. Mary, which were put on the shields."

The frost subsided and slush along with melting snow became a real problem for revolutionaries. The owners of the nearby cafeterias distributed newspapers and plastic bags - papers took up wetness and bags were used to cover the footwear against the wet weather. Valenki (warm footgear) and rubbers were back in fashion. Kyivans brought more clothing and food to the field-kitchens, but hot tea and soup were the most popular. They also brought hot water in thermos bottles, which was consumed in a few seconds.

In Lviv

I returned to my home home city - Lviv, which is in the West of Ukraine and where my parents lived a few days before the third run-off. Immediately after my arrival, my close friends and I organized a Coordination Center in the offices of a consulting company where friends were working.

The plan was simple: people were divided into 4 groups of 3 persons; each group had to be on duty for 6 hours on Sunday - the day of the election and on the following Monday night; the general Ukrainian electronic database was created to collect the information from constituencies about violations and fraud incidents and we had to sort the information and transfer it to the main headquarters of Our Ukraine block in Kyiv.

I kept vigil in the group that was on duty Monday night. During the night we received a dozen phone calls and a few e-mails. However the problems the people sent to us were minor and we were happy that the third and the last run-off transpired without massive fraud. Just before dawn, when the preliminary results of the elections were known, we heard the hooting of passing cars and cheers of joy from the small groups people just behind the windows of our office. The sounds meant that our struggle was not in vain.

The revolution lasted just 17 days. Alexander Babak, a journalist friend, described the situation as follows: "The last 17 days were the most momentous in my life. I was prepared to die the next day and my life would be completely total and fulfilled."

Viktor Yushchenko's victory was cemented by the hundreds of thousands of people who cheered, stomped, blew horns and chanted at Independence Square at the end of 2004, and by his own strength during a painful, confusing and chaotic presidential campaign. But, the possibility of his victory was created by those around him - the authorities who unbelievably rebuffed his repeated attempts at compromise, and the opposition leaders who, at their own risk, prepared society for the day when Viktor Yushchenko would be ready to lead them.

In his talk Alexander Babak continued, "The spirit of Revolution remained on the streets of Ukrainian cities. During the time of Orange revolution at Maidan everyone could find pleasant people to talk with, could be offered a hot cup of tea or coffee, could dance, listen to the music, talk about politics, about life, to find spiritually close friends."

In May 2005 Ukraine will host Eurovision song contest 2005. The song that became the anthem of Ukraine's Orange revolution has been chosen to represent the country at this year's Eurovision song contest. The chants by the thousands of people who took to the streets of Kiev in November and December echoed the famous revolutionary slogan of El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido! (The people, united, will never be defeated!).

According to the words of the newly elected president of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko, he is "very happy that "our beautiful revolution" made so many people happy." "We have chosen freedom, since tyranny must not rule over the successors of Cossack Republic where as long as three hundred years ago the First Constitution in Europe was written. We have chosen for independence, as we are the descendants of those generations that were dreaming of Ukrainian state for centuries and courageously fighting for their freedom. We turn over a new page in Ukrainian history. It will be wonderful. It will tell about our unity, courage and our determination to support each other. And Maidan figures out in our history. Here we will gain our strength and share our joy. This Square is a symbol of a free nation that believes in its power and creates its future on its own. And the national blue and yellow flag will always fly over us. The National Anthem will sound with millions of voices. All our dreams will come true. Believe in Ukraine, love Ukraine, serve Ukraine!", the President said in his inaugural address to the Ukrainian people on Independence Square.

According to the EU business agency, "five influential members of the European Union parliament have proposed Ukraine's new President Viktor Yushchenko for the Nobel Peace Prize in tribute to his "courage" in fighting for democracy." In a letter to the Nobel Foundation in Oslo, EU parliament vice president Jacek Saryusz-Wolski and his four colleagues called for the 2005 award to be given to Yushchenko on behalf of Ukraine's people. "Awarding this prize would reflect not only the desire for freedom by hundreds of thousands of the people... but also the personal courage of President Yushchenko, who never failed in his duty to his people. This award would act as a worldwide recognition of the deep-seated change brought about in Ukraine, now as a country set on a firm course of democracy, human rights and the rule of law," said the letter.