SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Ukraine’s orange revolution

"IT’S A pity that the camp as a symbol of this process is already history… but on the other hand, we are only beginning the Orange revolution", was the comment of Victor Yushenko in the middle of January as he signed the order to remove the tent city from Kiev’s central street, the Khreshatik. Hundreds of his supporters were still camping out, determined to stay until Yushenko, who gained 52% of the vote (as against 44% for his opponent, Victor Yanukovich) in the rerun election, was inaugurated.

The inauguration could not take place until the official result was announced, and this was not possible until the Supreme Court had decided on the validity of the complaints made by the loser. As a last-ditch attempt to get the vote annulled, Yanukovich submitted another 620 volumes of documents and 250 video cassettes of evidence of alleged voting fraud, but succeeded only in delaying the time before Yushenko became Ukraine’s new president.

The ‘Orange revolution’ that gripped Ukraine in December was only pushed out of the headlines by the tsunami that hit Asia on the day of the rerun election. But the effects on the whole region are likely to be like a slow-motion tsunami. Its impact has already spread to other countries. In Kazakhstan, a student protest in mid-December at the commercialisation of higher education led to the sacking of the minister responsible. At the same time, president Nursultan Nazarbayev has banned the main opposition bloc, Democratic Choice Kazakhstan (an alliance of the neo-liberal, pro-Western opposition and the Communist Party). In Russia, 2005 has started with widespread protests by pensioners at the so-called monetarisation of their social benefits (free travel and cheap health care have been abolished, and a smaller monetary compensation is supposed to be paid). The protestors blocked roads, including the main highway between Moscow and its international airport, in a movement comparable in size to that of 1997, when miners blockaded the government’s building in Moscow for three months.

With Yushenko’s victory, Western, particularly US, capitalists are basking in what they see as another victory for their tactics of using foundations and NGOs to bolster pro-Western ‘democratic’ forces against sitting presidents. Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine are to be followed, they plan, by Croatia, Kirgizia, Moldova and Kazakhstan. In Kirgizia, the opposition has already started daily protests in the centre of the capital, Bishkek, and has ordered thousands of green scarves and flags to be produced. In Kazakhstan, the ‘revolution’ is to be coloured after its native flower, the tulip.

The US State Department has reportedly invested tens of millions of dollars in backing these ‘revolutions’. But it is one thing to finance movements in small countries such as Georgia and Serbia, quite another in Ukraine, one of the biggest countries in Europe. The Orange movement won because the outgoing regime of Leonid Kuchma was seen as extremely corrupt and unpopular. The obvious rigging of the ballot in the first election only acted as a catalyst for hundreds of thousands of people to protest at the manipulation, corruption and low living standards, or simply to demand change. Yushenko’s support from Western powers added a further impulse as many participants saw him as pro-European, believing that if Ukraine was to join Nato and the EU things would dramatically improve.

Not everyone, however, wants to link up with the EU and Nato. This is particularly true of the eastern and southern regions, where 70% of industry is based. Miners in the Donetsk basin bitterly complain that, when Yushenko was prime minister, he led a western-backed programme to close down the mines. The Yanukovich camp, backed by Russia, tried to play up this ethnic division by threatening to organise a referendum to form a South-Eastern Autonomy running from Kharkov through Donetsk to Odessa and the Crimea. Yushenko was no better, although not so blatant in his use of the national question. Even so, members of the CWI in the Crimea report that he attempted to win the support of the Tatar minority by promising them backing in their struggle against the Russian majority on the peninsula.

The use of the national question in this way was not due to carelessness or a lack of understanding by the politicians but was part of a conscious tactic by the two camps to win support. One of the leading Russian polit-technologists (as spin doctors are known here) sent by Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to help Yanukovich, bitterly complained that he had not followed his advice. He believed Yanukovich’s attacks on the EU would backfire as many, particularly in Western Ukraine, actually see the EU as attractive: "I told them to whip up anti-Polish feeling!"

In the same way, the West openly dangled the ideas of joining Nato and the EU, although it is clear that can only be a long-term option. Significantly, however, when the leaders of either the ‘blue’ or the ‘orange’ camp attempted to play the national card they met with resistance from ordinary people, many of whom have watched in horror the consequences of ethnic conflicts in other countries. Nonetheless, the dangers for the future are clear to see. If the economic situation does not improve and the different clans of the bourgeoisie continue to struggle between themselves, ethnic conflicts could quickly spin out of control.

For Russia 2004 started with the humiliation of losing influence in Georgia after Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in the ‘Rose revolution’. The year ended with the even more devastating blow of the Orange revolution. Putin’s reaction was bitter and outspoken against the West, and domestically against any opposition. As soon as the pensioners’ protests broke out, the state waged a full witch-hunt to find ‘the guilty’ so that criminal action could be started. Only as the protests developed was the state forced to back down and talk of ‘administrative measures’. Yushenko’s victory in this sense has only added to the potential instability that is building up again in the whole region.

For now, Yushenko has the near impossible task of forming a government that will both satisfy his Western and big-business backers whilst offering improvements in living standards to the masses who came out on to the streets. He already faces big problems, not least because the US will not be happy that Ukraine is pushing through its decision to withdraw its contingent (the fourth largest, with over 1,000 troops) from Iraq.

Even more problematic will be healing the wounds caused by the clash between the different wings of the ruling elite. It is rumoured, but of course denied, that a deal was done with outgoing president Kuchma to guarantee him immunity from prosecution for corruption and other wrongdoings whilst he was in office. But one of the motives driving the protesters was that the criminals should be brought to justice. Some of the outgoing regime have taken those demands seriously. On the night of the rerun election, the transport minister ‘committed suicide’, presumably because of his heavy involvement in manipulating the first election.

Yushenko will face contradictory demands: on the one side, from the people, who want justice for the crimes of the past ten years; on the other, from leading supporters, such as Julia Timoshenko – herself allegedly on Interpol’s wanted list – who also wants an amnesty for her uncle, currently in a US prison on money-laundering charges.

There are four front-runners for premier, a position that now holds more powers than before the election as a result of the compromise Kuchma forced from Yushenko before agreeing to a rerun. Each represents different interests and demonstrates how difficult it will be for Yushenko to hold his bloc together.

It appears to be only a matter of time before the new Yushenko regime runs into serious clashes between its own leaders and supporters. The only thing that is absolutely clear is that the working masses of Ukraine will gain little, if anything, from the recent movement, except for the experience that mass action on the streets can force the government to back down. But next time, as a result of the inevitable attacks on living standards coming from Yushenko’s government, the next stage of protests will have a more working-class content. This can only bring forward the day when the workers themselves begin to build their own political organisation.

Rob Jones


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