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25 February, 2011  ▪  William Gleason

The Orange Revolution: Lessons for the Middle East

What lessons does the Ukrainian Revolution of 2004 provide?

Revolution is back, this time in the least expected place in the world: the Middle East. As of this writing political change across the Middle East is sweeping forward with breakneck speed. What can we say that begins to make sense about these events? One approach would be to look at fairly recent revolutions that offer the perspective of time, distance, and cautionary tales. A good choice would be the Orange Revolution of Ukraine, a large country not far from the Middle East.

What lessons does the Ukrainian Revolution of 2004 provide? Four points can be considered.

First, whether in Ukraine or the Middle East, revolutions offer a healthy dose of humility. In 2004 a former American Ambassador to Ukraine told me that virtually no one foresaw the swirling events in Kyiv. Ditto the Middle East. One searches in vain for expert predictions three months ago on the explosions in Tunisia or Egypt. And we could extend this point back in time to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The absence of expert prediction, however, should not surprise us. By definition, revolutions are singular events of a nonlinear nature that come in the middle of the night, so to speak. They resist modeling or easy anticipation because they mirror the unpredictability of human behavior – who, for example, could have predicted the angry reaction of a Tunisian street vendor that touched off the first of the Middle East explosions? Who could have predicted the refusal of Lech Walesa to return to work in Gdansk in 1980, a refusal that gave birth to Solidarity in Poland? The answer to these questions should be obvious - nobody. Humility is the first and proper response to these stories.

Second, the “day after revolution” is a major determinant of ultimate success or failure. Here, the Orange Revolution teaches us by negative example. At the height of the explosion in Kyiv in December 2004, everyone knew what they wanted – an end to the Kuchma regime. They got their wish but as soon as Kuchma was gone, big differences emerged within the revolutionary leadership, differences that plagued the new government for years and ultimately led to its rejection in 2010 by the voters.

Which is another way of saying that, as counterintuitive as it may seem at the time, a revolution may be the easy part. What happens next – the “day after revolution”—is the principal ingredient in the overall mix, at least for the foreseeable future. If the revolutionary leadership can agree on essentials, say, of political and economic reform, the energy behind the initial outburst may be sustained. But if the leadership is divided or split, good governance becomes impossible and trouble ensues. From 2005-2010 the leaders of the Orange Revolution fell out with each other and the revolutionary momentum of 2004 was squandered. The leaders of the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt (to date) would do well to study this example and to ponder its meaning.

Third, at bottom revolutions are about fairness and human dignity. The young people who filled the Maidan Square in Kyiv in 2004 looked to a better future, as do their counterparts in Cairo and Tunis and elsewhere. And the principal element in achieving justice and dignity is an end to corruption and a stacked economic deck. Again, the Orange Revolution teaches us by negative reflecton.

Lasting economic reform will come only if the society is opened up to meaningful opportunity and competition. Only if contracts are honored and investments are protected under the law. Absent the elimination of corruption across the courts, the government, and the business world, and real reform cannot take root. In the end the Orange Revolution subsided because its leaders did not take seriously the demand of people, and especially young people, for justice and fairness. The new leadership of Egypt and Tunisia must insist on a fair society above all else.

Fourth – and this may be the least understood point of all – revolutions may begin suddenly, but they last for a long time. Again, by definition, revolutions are cataclysmic events that shake governments and peoples to their foundations. The ripple effects of such change last for decades if not longer. Consider the Russian Revolution. The dust from the Bolshevik overthrow of 1917 did not settle until well into the 1930s with Stalin and the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Or, consider the American Revolution. For the first decade following the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781, the American states were at loggerheads, and the gains of the revolution were problematic at best. Only with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the election of George Washington as President in 1789 did the curtains begin to lift and the underlying meaning of the American Revolution become apparent.

And what about the Orange Revolution? The conventional wisdom is that with the election of Victor Yanukovych as President of Ukraine in 2010 – in other words, the election of the man who opposed the events of 2004 – the Orange Revolution has ended. But if history is any guide, that may be a premature conclusion. Ukraine still has a formidable oppositionist political force that includes Yulia Tymoshenko, and a robust civil society, two of the spearheads of the 2004 uprising. Last December, thousands of middle class business people, along with many young people, protested the new tax laws of the government which led to the laws being withdrawn. In short, traditions of protest and drama continue in Ukraine, traditions that could, given sufficient cause, trigger another mass movement.

All of which tells us that we are at the beginning, the very beginning of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Already the movements of these two countries have sparked movements in a half dozen other Middle East countries. Who can say where this will lead? But the main thing here is that revolutions twist and turn and lead to outcomes barely anticipated or imagined in the early phases. They are lengthy and complicated stories – in America, in Russia, in Ukraine, and now, in the Middle East. A story with many chapters yet to be written.

Stay tuned.


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