Orange Revolution Flags swaying
Photo: alex_e14 / flickr.com
November 2005: First anniversary of the Orange Revolution in Kiev. Today Ukrainians feel betrayed by their revolutionary leaders.

In cold and snowy February, Ukraine chose a new president. Viktor Yanukovych’s "viktory" is sometimes seen as the restoration of the Ancien Regime. But in fact it is an example of the fact that the colour revolutions succeeded: across Eastern Europe, they counteracted the attempts of post-soviet ruling elites to destroy maturing democracies. Even if it is not as obvious as during the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi or the Orange Revolution in Kyiv, Yanukovych's election is another sign of democratic adolescence. After a tempestuous period of "sturm und drang," the time has come to make serious decisions and learn from mistakes.

Europe painted by the colour revolutions

"The colour revolutions" is the term coined to explain the liberating wave which flowed through Eastern Europe in the first decade of the 21st century, causing upheavals across the post-soviet area. It all began in 2000 with Serbia's "Otpor!" (Resistance). Although "Otpor!" had a different character and different geopolitical conditions from those of the movements which came after it, it lent momentum to the wave and created inspiration, showing that it was possible to bring about change. The Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 followed most visibly, while in Kyrgyzstan the Tulip Revolution overthrew the Akayev "dynasty". In other countries, colourful values inspired democratic opposition groups. For example, Belarusian anti-Lukashenko organisations united under Aleksandar Milinkevich with new hopes of a successful struggle for democracy.

The colour revolutions were about supporting human rights and democracy; they were about transparency rather than corruption, and they were about the reorientation of foreign policy.


To understand the colourful phenomenon it is necessary to go back to the frosty December of 1999. The Russian President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned from the presidential post and the young prime minister Vladimir Putin, then unknown to the general public, became Acting President of Russia. He was then prime minister and president at the same time, with the task of calling a presidential election. Thus Putin successfully asserted control over the ballot by calling elections instantly and shortening election campaigns – not to mention ensuring unequal access to the media, and committing other frauds reported by the Council of Europe delegation. Putin was "anointed" by Yeltsin rather than being properly elected.

Saakashvili Rose Revolution
Photo: Zaraza / wikimedia commons
Mikheil Saakashvili in a demonstration of the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi, 2003.

The beginning of Vladimir Putin’s presidency demolished the post Cold War paradigm which let Eastern European countries declare sovereignty and realise it in the way they wanted – democracy, integration in NATO, independent supra-national initiatives. Once the country of perestroika and glasnost, Russia unfortunately returned to long-held tsarist (imperial) ideas and to the myth of Moscow as the "third Rome" which theoretically inherited power over the East after the fall of Constantinople. The consequences were: aggressive interventions and a falsified referendum in Chechnya, failed attempts to control the Ukrainian presidential election in 2004, and finally the Georgian war in 2008 and the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Meanwhile, feeling threatened by this reorientation, the formerly Soviet countries were having their own problems with the democratic delegation of power: Post-Soviet verkhushas (ruling elites) tried to avoid risky democratic procedures and – to put it kindly – attempted to steer public opinion towards the "right" candidates.


In the foreground, Georgians and Ukrainians faced "post-Soviet necessities". Singing the Ukrainian song "Razom nas bahato, nas ne podolaty" ("Together we are many, we cannot be defeated") and shouting the Georgian “Kmara!" ("Enough!") at post-Soviet rulers, strong leaders such as the Ukrainian Viktor Yushchenko and the Georgian Mikheil Saakashvili were men of the moment. They successfully united their nations and appeared to be guarantors of democracy and independence. In the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko won the presidential election in 2004 in the so-called "third round" – a repeated runoff which was falsified by the pro-Russian ruling elite. In the Rose Revolution Mikheil Saakashvili urged Georgians to protest against rigged parliamentary elections, resulting in the resignation of infamous president Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been engaged in falsification.

Photo: Kocio / wikimedia commons
The Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the Independence Square, in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution, 2004.

Unfortunately, their success soon exceeded those two politicians, and they sank into quarrels and personal battles with their closest revolutionary comrades-in-arms. Saakashvili fell out with Nino Burjanadze, Yuschenko with Yulia Tymoshenko. The two former leaders of the Orange Revolution even accused each other of "supporting" swine flu. Moreover, the leaders of the colour revolutions unconsciously started to imitate their authoritarian predecessors: Mikheil Saakashvili used police against protestors in 2007 while Viktor Yuschenko acted according to nepotism rather than candidates' qualifications in his presidential nominations.

Lost revolution?

Now the new Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, is the man who was Putin's favourite in 2004. Is that the end of the cheerful revolution? No. The Orange Revolution ended very quickly: soon after the tents in which protestors had camped were moved away from Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). After the "peremoha"(перемога - triumph), the Orange leaders quickly became embroiled in ridiculous antics and constant political squabbles.

But even if the leaders got lost, the breakthroughs of the revolutionary heyday cannot be cancelled out. There is a Ukrainian saying "the lower part of an iceberg" (нижня частина айсберга - “nyzhnia chastyna aisberha”). It means that what is really important is not the clearly visible peak of the iceberg – political leaders, televised press conferences – but ordinary people's lives, local initiatives and the like.

So there are some successes: in Ukraine journalists do not go missing without trace, media freedom is not censored as was typical in previous times, and NGOs are becoming more active and visible. In Georgia, limiting corruption tripled the country's budget and achieved a functioning state and better infrastructure. But the most noteworthy consequences of those revolutions are expressed by the words overheard on a Kyiv street by Mykola Ryabchuk, an influential Ukrainian intellectual: "It is hard to find anyone in Ukraine who won't be disappointed with the results of the Orange Revolution. But it is equally difficult to find any participant of that revolution who regrets being there at Maidan Nezalezhnosti and who would not come there once again if needed."

Photo: Igor Kruglenko / wikimedia commons
Viktor Yanukovich, Putin's favourite in the 2004 elections, finally became Ukraine's president in 2010.

Finally, Viktor Yanukovych won a democratic election, he was chosen by voters and not "anointed" by anybody. One of the most significant aims of the Orange Revolution was to establish free elections. What is more, the man nicknamed "Yanuk" is not the same guy as he was in 2004. He may be a man of opportunist manoeuvres, but his early visit to Brussels instead of Moscow and his exposé presented in Ukrainian rather than Russian, his preferred mother tongue, are at least symbols of change.

Geopoetics vs geopolitics

Geopoetics, a nice term coined by the famous Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych, enabled the Ukrainians and Georgians to defeat tanks and specnaz troops with roses, tulips and oranges. People were able to overcome the false "historical necessities" of dreary geopolitics and hear the heart of Europe beating in Kyiv or Tbilisi.

Protestors, apart from their colourful props and national symbols, were also holding the starry flag of Europe. Did they have an exact knowledge of the European Union, European Neighbourhood Policy and its Eastern dimension? No. The blue flag with twelve golden stars was for them a symbol of real, transparent democracy which is not steered by his post-soviet highness, human rights which are not treated as "bourgeois inventions", or the law which is not an instrument of the ruling class but ars boni et aequi ("the art of the good and the just").

The "forgotten Europeans" of the East expressed the desire to unite with the "old Europeans" of the West. Geopoetics also reminded the old Europeans of those forgotten, eastern backwoods. But soon after the end of these cheerful, televised colour revolutions, the old Europeans tended to forget again or become bored.

During the colour revolutions Europe did not seem to have any problems with solidarity, unity or identity. There was not old Europe and young Europe. The everlasting division between Lennon's West and Lenin's East, civilised occident and barbarian orient, looked outdated. It could have been a temporary impression or a deceptive feeling.

But even if today those colours seem to be blurred, the impressionist picture of Europe which was being painted then had all the hallmarks of a great work of art. And it is up to us whether the painting will be finished.

IN -1773 DAYS