November 22 is the official anniversary of the start of the Orange Revolution that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power in Ukraine in 2005. As a writer, I’m fascinated more than anything by the language that has been used to discuss, analyze and summarize this historical event. It’s time for all of us to consider the terms we are using and reconsider this much-discussed subject.
In English, the three R’s are reading, (w)riting and reckoning (arithmetic). In Ukraine, they’ve taken on a meaning of their own: revolutsia (revolution), rozcharuvannia (disenchantment) and repressia (political repression)—three terms that have been abused and misused by the press and political pundits alike in describing and assessing these events.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?
The events of November-December 2004 that ended up being called the Orange Revolution were the product of four factors that happened to coincide at the right time for the right candidate.
First, Viktor Yushchenko chose as one of his slogans, “Let’s put the crooks behind bars!” Of his handful of slogans, this was the most concrete. For one thing, he was a man with a clean reputation. For another, he was running for the presidency in the hopes of replacing a highly criminal regime, one that most Ukrainians—including millions that had no interest in Mr. Yushchenko himself or his party—were heartily sick of. So this slogan resonated enormously with average Ukrainians, but especially with the growing middle class.
Secondly, Mr. Yushchenko’s opponent, then-premier Viktor Yanukovych, was closely tied to Donetsk strongman Rinat Akhmetov and had a very spotty past. Indeed, by law, Mr. Yanukovych should never have been allowed to run for mayor of a hamlet in Ukraine, let alone the highest post in the land because he had done time twice as a young man, for assault and battery. A third case against him was dismissed, apparently when a deal was cut with the judge. Somehow, Mr. Yanukovych was “rehabilitated” and records of his jail time disappeared, but a copy of the original records was found in Moscow. In short, Mr. Yushchenko was running against a man with a prison record who was supported by Ukraine’s old thieving guard.
Thirdly, the country’s micro, small and medium-sized business owners, who formed the core of a growing middle-class, were tired of being shaken down at every step. For the previous couple of years, since Mr. Yanukovych and his pals had moved to Kyiv, Donetsk mobsters and racketeers had been shaking down everybody from Sumy to Zakarpattia. Their typical M.O. was to come to someone’s premises, march around and “assess the place,” and make the owner a ridiculously low offer for their business or their premises. If the owner rejected the offer, the heat was put on. Threats, beatings, and worse. Some businesses were shut down on trumped up charges, others were vandalized or even burned, but the Donetsk boys eventually got it their way. Most owners capitulated quickly, knowing they had no recourse.
Take Sumy. Sumy wasn’t actually Yushchenko-friendly country, although he was a native son. In the 2002 elections to the Verkhovna Rada, Sumy voters gave him the complete cold shoulder. But Sumy businesses were feeling the choke from the southeast and they had had it. Rumor was that the Donetsk boys were starting to squeeze out even kiosk owners at local markets. So Sumy voted more than 70% for Mr. Yushchenko in all three rounds.
Finally, for the previous decade and a half, ever since the hunger strikes of 1990, there was a group of hardcore Ukrainians who continued to build a national democratic support movement. These were people with experience with the student hunger strikes and later the unsuccessful “Kuchma—Out!” movement in 2001. They had learned some lessons from both their successes and their failures. They knew how to set up tent cities, how to control a crowd, how to plan large-scale demonstrations. As one of their senior people puts it, “We were ready for the concluding phase of Ukraine’s independence process.”
In short, these four factors created the circumstances under which the Orange Revolution could take place.
WEEPING AND GNASHING OF TERMS
Immediately after Mr. Yushchenko’s inauguration, and seven years on too, we saw much wringing of hands and crocodile tears about the supposed failure of the revolution.
Let’s take the term “revolutsia.” Was this a real revolution? By historical measures, no. There was no radical change of the status quo from top to bottom or the introduction of a radically new system. What this really was, was an insurrection of the middle class. Ordinary Ukrainians saw that they were about to be defrauded of legitimate succession and to be stuck with a president who was a gangster with a penchant for using his fists to settle differences. It was the last straw. They stood up and said, “We’ve had it and we aren’t going to take it any more!”
The trouble with insurrections is that they are largely spontaneous events, with little thought beforehand (being colossally fed up does not constitute laying the groundwork for a well-planned strategic move), and almost as little afterwards.
What was lacking was follow-through on the part of the participants. On the part of those who led the insurrection, this was the capacity to put disciplined professionals in key positions and to change a corrupt system effectively. On the part of those who joined the insurrection, this was the capacity to change themselves to support a change in the system. When Mr. Yushchenko was finally inaugurated on January 23, 2005, how many Ukrainians actually made a vow to change their own behavior from then on? To be honest, to be fair, to pay their lawful taxes, and to not pay (unlawful) bribes?
Of course, everyone was disenchanted.
The term “rozcharuvannia” (disenchantment) has been the subject of opinion polls probably since the second month Mr. Yushchenko was in office. Aside from the fact that if you repeat something often enough in the press and other media, people are likely to start to believe it, being disenchanted is an interesting state to be in. In Ukrainian, as in English, “dis-enchantment” has the same root as “echantment”—the state of being altered by a charm or spell. When people talk about being in love, they often find their beloved “enchanting,” they are “spellbound” by the other. Yet, most of us understand that this feeling is based on illusions, on making an idol or ideal out of the object of love—and that it is bound to lead to disappointment (dis-enchantment). What is more, most of us recognize it as an immature, unrealistic response in the real world.
The same can be said of those who are feeling “disenchanted” by the results of the “Orange Insurrection” in Ukraine. Disenchantment is no more than a good dose of reality, a dropping of the blinders, the illusions that we ourselves invented. Once reality has been faced, there is a good chance that a normal relationship can develop if there is some goodwill on both sides.
One of the aspects of this more realistic approach is the understanding that putting crooks in jail is no simple matter if those crooks happened to be running the country and had all the leverage that that entails to fix the system to suit their needs. This brings us around to the term, “repressia,” meaning political persecution.
Since putting crooks behind bars was one of the main promises Mr. Yushchenko made, his law enforcement people began working to do so from Day One. In the end, without much success. For one thing, most of the biggest fish that need to be fried were part of the previous regime. Big-time crooks are very good at covering their tracks, even in the private sector. It took the US years to put Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom behind bars. Ditto any number of other high-profile white-collar crooks like Michael Milken and the boss of Tyco.
In Ukraine, rule of law is a nascent concept, not a tried-and-true system. What’s more, the biggest crooks were in high office where they could not only shred and burn incriminating evidence, but they could fix laws and regulations to suit their needs, disappear their ill-gotten gains at will to offshore accounts, and generally operate a chain-of-command so complex and sweeping that there could be 100 intermediaries between those who executed a given crime, such as a murder, and those who actually ordered it.
Still, there were some obvious and very public crimes committed in Ukraine that surely could have been handled swiftly and firmly. But here, the newly-ordained opposition began to scream, “repression!” Last time I looked in a dictionary, political persecution means going after someone who didn’t necessarily do anything wrong simply because you didn’t like his politics. This certainly doesn’t mean that every time the defendant is an opposition politician that it’s a case of persecution (Logic 101). If there was a crime, particularly a serious one, it’s irrelevant what the person’s political persuasions were. If publically declaring that the region you are governor of will no longer remit its taxes to the Treasury is a crime under the Constitution of Ukraine, then you should go to jail, whether you were governor of Lviv or governor of Kharkiv when you said it.
On this last one, the press and the pundits sinned most of all. They reminded me of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, who believed that you could make words mean whatever you wanted them to. “The question is, who shall be the master?” was the Cat’s argument. No. The question is, are you interested in communicating or obfuscating?
In the interest of communicating, I’d like to sum up what I consider to be the achievements of the Orange “insurrection:”
• greater flow of information, especially as regards those who govern the country;
• less political (as opposed to bureaucratic) interference in business;
• awareness among Ukrainians that they are a people who can stand up for what they consider important—and do so without bloodletting.
This is what I believe hasn’t been achieved yet and needs to be done if there is to be long-term gain from all this pain:
• disciplined, professional, properly paid civil servants, including judges and cops, who will work for the greater (public) good;
• conditions for small and medium business, which is the backbone of a healthy economy, to work properly. This doesn’t mean no one will go bankrupt—but it means that they will do so because of their own mistakes, not because of tax pressures or political flak;
• grass-roots change, both at the individual (personal) level and at the local (political) level. If you were able to stand up and be counted in the nation’s capital, surely you can stand up and be counted in your own neighborhood.
That should put paid to all the nonsense about revolutsia, rozcharuvannia and repressia.