Andreas Umland: Understanding the Orange Revolution: Ukraine's Democratization in the Russian Mirror

[Dr Andreas Umland is a lecturer in contemporary East European history at The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Upper Bavaria, general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society”, and co-editor of the German-Russian journal "Forum for the Ideas and History of Contemporary Eastern Europe".]

On November 21st, 2009, Ukrainian democrats will be celebrating the fifth anniversary of the start of demonstrations in Kyiv which led to larger political developments that came to reshape our understanding of post-Soviet politics. During the last five years, the 2004 events in Ukraine known as the Orange Revolution have become important reference points in the international study of democratic transition and consolidation. The Orange Revolution is certainly the major event in the study of current Ukrainian history.(1) Whatever happens to Ukraine in the future,(2) it seems to be destined to become a “crucial case” within comparative research into post-communist politics.(3)

Such an interpretation is in discord with the view of the 2004 events held by a surprisingly large number of powerful politicians, influential “political technologists” and even some politologists in Moscow (4) where oranzhevyi (orange) has become a swear-word used to label all sorts of supposedly “anti-Russian,” “pro-American” actors and activities in- and outside Russia.(5) The currently dominant Russian interpretation of the Orange Revolution and similar events elsewhere is, for instance, documented by Vladimir Frolov's, in Russian terms, relatively moderate 2005 comment “Democracy by Remote Control” in Foreign Affairs' Moscow partner journal Russia in Global Affairs.(6) It is conspirological in so far as it portrays the various activities of millions of Ukrainians as well as of hundreds of civic and political Ukrainian organizations in late 2004 as masterminded by the United States government and its various puppets in Ukraine's civil society, mass media, political parties and state apparatus.(7) If one holds such a view of the Orange Revolution, then the interdisciplinary, multi-author, polymethodological and public study of this event – as attempted in various recent publication projects8 – is ridiculous. Instead, the Orange Revolution would be in need of investigation by able, no-nonsense security service officers (to whom Frolov apparently once belonged (9)) disclosing the “hidden forces” behind these events – and not by naïve or/and (under-)paid book worms who, consciously or not, are on the service of the well-known puppeteers at the White House or/and Wall Street. Clearly, so one hears from disturbingly many well-educated Russians today, the Orange Revolution was, after the bombing of Serbia, occupation of Iraq, or coup in Georgia, yet another exercise of what Washington would like – but thanks to Putin's firm leadership is unable – to do with Russia.

One might add that, during the Orange Revolution, Frolov apparently worked for Gleb Pavlovskii's so-called Effective Policy Foundation, i.e. a Moscow political technology firm involved in the various activities of the outgoing Kuchma administration, and in Yanukovych's campaign for the presidential elections.(10) The Russian actors with a personal stake in the outcome of the 2004 confrontation underestimated the weight of democratic inclinations, strength of pluralistic traditions, and tenacity of civic actors in Ukrainian society.(11) That, in the aftermath, they have been trying to present the Orange Revolution as an event mainly initiated and crucially manipulated by the West is not surprising, and could be interpreted as a form of rationalization of their own professional failure. The paranoid conspiracy theorizing that still dominates Russian public discourse on the Orange Revolution (as well as many other events) might thus not only be related to the authorities' overblown fear of a democratic revolution in Russia. It might also be the result of Moscow's political technologists' need to explain to their godfathers in the Kremlin why, for instance, the Effective Policy Foundation was ineffective in Ukraine, and failed to prevent Yushchenko's presidency – the Moscow spin-doctors' obvious mission at Kyiv. Frolov's idea of “democracy by remote control” serves as a convenient deflection from the circumstance that, arguably, Pavlovskii and Co., with their heavy-handed approach, themselves helped the Orange Revolution to succeed, and thus to strengthen those political dynamics that, especially in comparison to concurrent Russian trends,(12) changed the nature of Ukrainian domestic politics and foreign affairs.

The conspirological explanation of the Orange Revolution is also useful in drawing away attention from the fact that the repercussions of Moscow's political technologists' behavior in Kyiv and of the one-sided reporting of Russian television, widely watched in Ukraine, during and after the Orange Revolution did and still do damage to Russian-Ukrainian relations. The arrogant attitude of many journalists and commentators of Russia's government-controlled TV channels to Ukrainian politics and policies (admitted even by the former Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin) might meet the demands of the Russian elite and public. However, once watched in Ukraine by the objects of such reporting, it tends to make especially educated Ukrainians less sympathetic towards Russia, increasingly skeptical about the future of Russian-Ukrainian relations, and more interested in such institutions as the WTO, EU or NATO than they would otherwise be. Here too, alleged machinations of the West and its “fifth column” in Kyiv serve as an excuse for the growing estrangement between Russia's and Ukraine's elites and people – an unfortunate development that is more related to Moscow's continuing play with Russian anti-Ukrainian stereotypes than to any activities of Western governmental and non-governmental organizations at Kyiv.13

This long-winded reference to Moscow's interpretation of the events in Kyiv in 2004 is meant to lead to the two books that seem to constitute the best introductory reading to understand what the Orange Revolution was about, and what its historical meaning is against the background of concurrent developments in Russia. While not dealing directly with the Ukrainian uprising, a recent edited volume on comparative regime typology by Andreas Schedler,(14) and an acclaimed monograph on the nature of post-Soviet politics by Andrew Wilson15 identify vividly the core of the issue at hand in studying the Orange Revolution. To be sure, there are now a number of scholarly monographs, collected volumes and research papers that deal specifically with the Ukrainian presidential elections of 2004.16 This concerns, apart from the above mentioned works, Wilson's other recent important book on the Orange Revolution (a kind of standard reference to the event),(17) Strasser's investigation into the role of civil society in it,(18) Bredies' analysis of the Verkhovna Rada,(19) as well as paper collections edited by Kurth/Kempe, Bredies, McFaul/Aslund, Kuzio, Shapoval, and Lane/White.(20) In addition, there are now numerous important individual journal articles.(21)

However, the two books deciphering best what the Orange Revolution was actually about are Schedler's Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition,(22) and Wilson's Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World.(23) In mainstream Russian interpretations of the Orange Revolution, the issue at hand in this event is, at best, presented as an extraordinary continuation of the ongoing power struggle between Ukraine's two competing political-economic clans with their geographically and culturally defined constituencies in Eastern and Western Ukraine, or, at worst, as a clash between two antagonistic civilizations with heavy involvement by the amerikantsy.

Doubtlessly, in these elections two clearly distinguishable Ukrainian political groups were set against each other and, though both were officially in favor of EU membership, one of them was more pro-Western than the other. Admittedly, the Orange Revolution was not a proper revolution comparable to the French, Russian or other social revolutions. Perhaps, the event should be instead classified as a mass action of civil disobedience in defense of the country's political order as defined by the Constitution of Ukraine adopted in 1996 (and it is rather the Kremlin's systematic deflation of Russia's nascent democratic institutions as well as silent devaluation of her Constitution since 2000 that might qualify as a political revolution from above). Yet, the 2004 actions that became known as the Orange Revolution were also not merely about whohow the elections were conducted. In other words, the primary question was whether this presidential poll constituted a democratic election, or not. What the Russian noise concerning the Orange Revolution has been trying to obfuscate ever since 2004 is that this upheaval was not so much about which politician would rule Ukraine, but about what kind of rule the country should have. At stake was, only in the second instance, the composition of Ukraine's highest offices. The immediate and more fundamental issue was what the nature of Ukraine's post-Kuchma political regime would be.

To clarify this distinction Schedler's Electoral Authoritarianism and Wilson's Virtual Politics are useful. Their books – Schedler's from a theoretical and cross-cultural, and Wilson's from a post-Soviet and intra-regional comparative perspective – help one to draw a clear line between Ukraine's pseudo-democratic regime before the Orange Revolution, and its proto-democratic political system after it. Schedler defines the generic regime-type, of which Kuchma's Ukraine was but one permutation, as “electoral authoritarianism.” While seemingly pluralistic voting procedures defined as “elections” take place in such countries regularly, these states constitute, nevertheless, dictatorships – if, mostly, of a relatively soft type. At the heart of such systems lies a formal acceptance of multi-party and -candidate elections as a procedure to legitimize power. However, in electoral authoritarian regimes, such “elections'” overall socio-political context as well as their conduct on voting day are manipulated and/or their results falsified to an extent that they cannot be classified as democratic any more. From this viewpoint, it seems an open question whether these political systems should be understood as hybrid regimes between demo- and autocracy, or whether the attribute “electoral” in their title represents, in fact, a euphemism that distracts from the controlled – or, in Wilson's words, “virtual” – character of public politics in countries with electoral authoritarian regimes.

For those acquainted with the various “political technologies” to deprive formally democratic processes of their meaning in the post-Soviet context, Schedler's collection can be fascinating reading. Its papers show that these phenomena are not as much region-specific as we might have thought.24 While there is thus an argument to be made that we are dealing here with a larger phenomenon that invites cross-cultural comparison, Wilson's Virtual Politics shows us what is still specific about the post-Soviet context, and in which particular ways “political technology” works. Wilson demonstrates in admirable detail how hidden control of information flows, party-building, and electoral processes by the powers-that-be have been subverting democracy in the post-Soviet world to such a degree as to create a relatively novel system of state-society relations in which fundamental electoral procedures are formally observed, but made largely senseless through their more or less sophisticated manipulation.

Wilson makes here in so far a terminological innovation as he lifts the, until then, largely colloquial, peculiarly post-Soviet construct of “political technology” to a proper political science concept, i.e. to a term specifically designed to distinguish certain essentially anti-democratic political practices from those political PR campaigns that are also well-known in the West. Wilson's argument is that “political technology” should only partly be understood as a radicalization of some dubious Western political practices, such as the massive negative advertising that has been typical of recent US presidential election campaigns. Instead, Wilson shows that “political technology” is, above all, rooted in Russia's and the other republics' Soviet past, namely in the peculiar subversion strategies that the KGB and other Soviet bloc security services had developed in their fight against anti-Soviet dissent.

On the one hand, Wilson has thus strengthened the Soviet element within “post-Soviet transitions” lending support to those researchers emphasizing the continued relevance of the ideographic element in – as opposed to nomothetic approaches to – the study of contemporary Russia, Ukraine, etc. On the other hand, we might be dealing here with a case were post-communist studies can make a contribution to general political science: “political technology” or “virtual politics,” as introduced by Wilson, are concepts that can travel to other regions of the world and could help us understand better various distortions of democratic procedures by spin-doctors who might not have had the benefit of serving in Soviet security services, but who may still be equally cynical and similarly original in their choice of instruments for stage-managing allegedly democratic processes.25

Ukraine's leaving behind of electoral authoritarianism and re-entry on a democratic transition path seems to be the major reason why the immediate reaction and continuing attention of Russia's currently ruling circles to the Orange Revolution has been so nervous: It was not only the more pro-Western approach of Yushchenko and supposedly pro-Russian sentiment of Yanukovych that was at stake for the Kremlin in Kyiv in 2004. The Orange Revolution appeared threatening as it concerned an issue that was then related to, and still touches upon, the core of Putin's “sovereign democracy.” It provided a model for how a post-Soviet society can get out of the deadlock of electoral authoritarianism and use, with foreign support, remnants of democratic procedurality to topple a de facto dictatorship.

It might have been the experience of the Orange Revolution that motivated the Kremlin to abandon, three years later, its earlier dramaturgy of staged political competition by controlled parties, and go, in December 2007, for an almost complete, largely undisguised restoration of an, in essence, singly-party system.(26) What has changed in Russia since the publication of Wilson's Virtual Politics is that, by late 2007, the Kremlin did not any longer bother to efficaciously fake political pluralism. Instead Russia has returned to its “special path” more or less openly denouncing the principle of checks and balances, and even re-discovering ancient Byzantine traditions to legitimize the country's now manifestly monistic political order.(27) This development is even more stunning in view of the fact that Ukraine – a country the history of which is closely intertwined with, and which had experienced an even deeper post-Soviet crisis than, Russia – is, by early 2009, still on the bumpy road to a consolidated democracy, and making slow, but steady advances in its rapprochement with such institutions as the WTO, NATO and EU. In fact, Ukraine is, as of today, still developing differently than virtually all other states that grew out of the Soviet Union founded in 1922.(28)...

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Arnold Shcherban - 11/22/2009

<on the bumpy road to a consolidated democracy>
Read: Plutocracy on the highway to economic and socio-political fiasco and military conflict with Russia.

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