A Deeper Shade of Orange

How the latest mass protests in Ukraine go beyond the revolution of 2004.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The crowds marching through the Ukrainian capital of Kiev have swelled over the past few days. Some estimates of their numbers run as high as 350,000. If true, that would make these protests even bigger than the ones that fueled the now-legendary Orange Revolution back in 2004.

For President Viktor Yanukovych, the latest turmoil represents an unexpected return to a past he’d hoped to put behind him. Today’s protest movement is quite different from the one that turned Ukrainian politics on its head nine years ago. But one thing they both have in common is their target: Yanukovych.

In 2004, it was Yanukovych who initially claimed victory in a blatantly fraudulent presidential election. Ukrainians took to the streets to protest the result, and succeeded in forcing a runoff vote that handed the presidency to opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovych had to wait for another six years until he was able to win the top job himself, more or less fairly, after Yushchenko’s term in office — marred by infighting, incompetence, and corruption — failed to deliver on the expectations of the revolution.

The protestors thronging the center of Kiev today, by contrast, are objecting to Yanukovych’s decision to make a sudden about-face on Ukraine’s long-nurtured plans to take a decisive step toward closer association with the European Union. Yanukovych was originally scheduled to sign two historic accords on closer economic and political cooperation with the EU during a summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on Nov. 29. But on Nov. 21, just days before the planned meeting, the Ukrainian president announced that he was backing away from the deal.

Many Ukrainians and EU leaders still hope that Yanukovych can be persuaded to sign the agreements, which, according to opinion polls, were clearly favored by a majority of Ukrainians. When Yanukovych announced that he was reneging on the deal, large numbers of newcomers joined the demonstrators already in the center of Kiev and protests broke out in scores of other towns and cities across Ukraine. After riot police used a level of violence against demonstrators not witnessed since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, outrage further swelled the ranks of protesters.

In 2004, Yanukovych wanted to use force against demonstrators, but was overruled by his own backers. Since his election in 2010 he’s done everything he could to prevent renewed challenges to his power. He imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko, whom he considered his most powerful potential rival. And he spent lavish amounts on anti-riot equipment and training to beef up the paramilitary police forces, whose brutal reputation has proved well-founded. Soon after the protests began, they used truncheons and boots to beat protesters senseless. At least 150 demonstrators have needed hospital treatment during this latest protest.

What Yanukovych has failed to realize, however, is that the people opposing him now are very different from those who took part in the demonstrations of 2004.

I spent much of that year reporting from Ukraine. That generation of young oppositionists consisted of people who still had clear memories of life under the old Soviet Union. Even though they hated authoritarianism, their behavior had been conditioned to a great extent by communist rule. There was, perhaps, a willingness to trust in the authority of the "right" leaders — who then proceeded to betray the trust that had been placed in them.

Today’s younger generation of Ukrainians, by contrast, has little or no experience of Soviet rule. They have an access to the wider world that even a decade ago was hard to imagine. Many now speak English, and even more are computer-savvy. Through the Internet, movies, and travel, these Ukrainians inhabit the same virtual space as their counterparts in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other democratic and economically advanced countries. Their sense of right or wrong, their values and expectations, are similar or identical to those of their counterparts around the world.

The members of this generation are indignant that they should be lied to by a president who spent the last two years promising closer ties with the EU — including eased visa restrictions, which would allow young Ukrainians to visit the outside world to which they feel belong. Although nearly all of the protestors say that they oppose violence, they’re undaunted by the authorities’ use of force.

Oksana Otchych, a 25-year-old demonstrator who has attended the protests each day in the western city of Lviv, told me: "When Yanukovych didn’t sign the EU agreement, people were disappointed, but not disheartened. Even when his forces used violence against the protesters, all that did was cause outrage and [give us the] feeling that he has overstepped the mark and must go. We want the protests to be peaceful but we aren’t going to go away because there might be bloodshed. After the violence of the weekend it’s not just the young people out on the streets. It’s people of all ages and all walks of life."

One of the demonstrators is Malanka Podoliak, a 19-year-old student. Here’s an excerpt from a recent post on her blog:

As you may know, on Thursday the 21st our government has decided to stop the process of Eurointegration of Ukraine, and to continue to work with [the] Russian Federation and other countries that belong to CIS [the Commonwealth of Independent States]. This day is now commonly known as the "Black Thursday." Most Ukrainians have started to organize demonstrations, students are on strikes, and most cities have created "camps" [in their] main plazas. What you don’t know is that our government is trying to do everything in order to stop us.

They have ordered our police not to let buses with activists from other cities drive into our capital, [and they also] forbid people to put tents on the main squares with the help of far-fetched court resolutions and "Berkut" units (the system of special units of the Ukrainian militia (police) within the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Initially used for fight against an organized crime. The main purpose of the unit is crowd control. Berkut is known to be used for racketeering purposes and political pressure by physical means).

A lot of people are being threatened. But we STILL FIGHT! Every day there are massive demonstrations all over Ukraine. With this post I want to let the world’s community know how our nation feels right now. We believe in your support! WE WILL NOT STAND BACK!

The vapid bureaucratic titles of the accords Yanukovych was to sign in Vilnius belie the extent to which the prospect of closer association with Europe seized the collective imagination of much of the country, regardless of age. The Vilnius Summit had become for millions the embodiment of their hopes when they talk about Ukraine "going to Europe." Ukrainians speak about Europe without the adjective "Western" because they are referring not just to the geographical boundaries containing the countries of the EU, but to a cultural and psychological space that represents their aspirations for real democracy and everything they passionately believe goes with it.

Most of all, Ukrainians crave the opportun
ity to use their talents and their country’s rich resources to provide better lives for themselves and their children — an aim thwarted by the present system, which is organized for the benefit of a handful of extremely wealthy oligarchs and their crooked politician patrons. The vision of a "European" Ukraine stands for the dream of a society ruled by law, one in which individual freedom and personal security are protected, and where corrupt bureaucrats and cops do not prey upon those they are supposed to serve.

Many Ukrainians are disgusted that Yanukovych caved in to pressure from Vladimir Putin, who is determined to keep Ukraine in Moscow’s orbit (preferably by incorporating it into the Kremlin-engineered Customs Union that brings together several authoritarian former Soviet republics). Russian politicians have openly threatened Ukraine with economic retaliation if it moves closer to Europe.

The demonstrators say they are determined to carry on, and the events have already produced some important effects. Although most want to see former Prime Minister Tymoshenko released, since they understand she is in jail for political reasons, the search is on for new leaders.

"The leaders of the opposition parties have shown themselves unprepared on how to topple the Yanukovych government," Otchych, the Lviv activist, said. "It was ordinary people themselves who took to the streets, and then the opposition leaders followed. We don’t yet see a person with the character and intelligence to unite all the people who want democratic change. That position is definitely open." She added: "There’s also a feeling of ‘playing for keeps’ this time. We’re ready to go on for as long as it takes."

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