With all of the understandable focus on the more momentous and still, in many respects, ongoing Euro-Maidan Revolution of Dignity, the 15th anniversary of the Orange Revolution has passed largely unnoticed. And even though many of its hopes failed to materialize, it remains a highly significant event in the history of independent Ukraine. The November-December 2004 Orange Revolution was a powerful expression of the Ukrainian people’s longing for dignity. Indeed, it was a precursor of the Revolution of Dignity that took place nine years later.
The Orange Revolution demonstrated to the entire world that the Ukrainian people were willing to speak truth to power, to fight for their rights in a quiet, dignified, peaceful manner, and to live in a democratic, free and independent country. With Ukraine constantly on the front-pages now, it is easy to forget that it was the Orange Revolution that first drew the world’s attention to Ukraine. For weeks in late 2004, Ukraine was a major story in the news.
The backdrop to the Orange Revolution was the rule of Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, whose regime was increasingly engaging in corrupt practices and violating human rights and the rule of law, including its involvement with and cover-up of the murder of prominent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000. It was during the Kuchma regime that the oligarchic system that haunts Ukraine to this day took hold. There were also growing signs of Ukrainians speaking out, including the emergence of the Ukraine Without Kuchma movement.
Throughout 2004, it became increasingly evident that the presidential elections scheduled for that fall were going to be problematic. There were various attempts by Mr. Kuchma and his oligarchic clan supporters to hold on to power and to neutralize the Verkhovna Rada’s democratic opposition leader and former reformist prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko. The run-up to the presidential elections saw media harassment and censorship, including the shutting down of Radio Liberty re-broadcasts, and the issuance of directives called “temnyky” sent to the media by the Presidential Administration to indicate what issues and events should be covered and how. There were disruptions of opposition congresses, tax police harassment of the opposition, denial of equal access to candidates, violence and other abuses that raised serious questions both within Ukraine and in the West as to whether a free and fair electoral contest could be held.
The United States, which had been expressing consternation following the Kuchma-gate scandals four years earlier, became increasingly dismayed. In the years leading up to the 2004 presidential election, both the administration and Congress were active in trying to keep Ukraine on the path towards human rights, democracy and the rule of law. There were numerous direct interventions, press releases, statements, congressional resolutions, hearings and even modest cuts in some U.S. assistance to signal displeasure – although more assistance was given to democracy-building efforts and Ukraine’s reform-minded civil society.
Despite the international and domestic expressions of concern, the Kuchma regime did not listen, perhaps thinking it could fool both the Ukrainian people and the West or simply not caring – because the stakes were too high for the corrupt oligarchic system if the reformer Mr. Yushchenko were to win.
The election held on October 31, 2004, was criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for not meeting a number of democratic election standards. As no candidate received an outright majority, the two top vote-getters, Mr. Yushchenko and then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, faced off in a runoff three weeks later. Despite the efforts of the U.S. and others to encourage a clean run-off, the November 21 election was fraught with violations and fraud.
I have served as an international observer in dozens of elections in nine countries, and these were among the worst I have ever seen. I requested to observe in an area expected to be especially problematic, Kirovohrad Oblast in central Ukraine – at that time, the equivalent of a “swing state,” so the stakes were high. And while the scale of violations was deeply maddening and saddening, my fellow observers and I also witnessed numerous acts of courage by poll workers, domestic observers and other Ukrainian citizens that day, asserting their rights and voicing their fervent desire “to live in a normal, civilized country.” They were speaking truth to power.
The day after the runoff, having driven back to Kyiv, I witnessed a sight that neither I nor anyone else there will ever forget: the streets of the capital filled up with hundreds of thousands of men, women and children bedecked in orange. It was a massive, peaceful and well-organized expression of support against corruption, and for human dignity, democracy, rule of law and Ukraine’s Western direction. This was a vast and heroic display of people speaking truth to power.
In the days and weeks following, the dignified presence and determination of the massive numbers of people gathered in Kyiv – and elsewhere in Ukraine – provided the strength and freedom to seek freedom and fair elections. In turn, that gave strength to Ukraine’s institutions, and on December 3, 2004, the Supreme Court invalidated the November 21 election and ordered a repeat of the runoff vote for December 26. A few days later, the Rada approved a new law on presidential elections, paving the way for a freer, more transparent voting process. The Kuchma regime had no choice but to listen.
Western governments and international organizations such as the OSCE stood with the peaceful protesters, pressing the Ukrainian authorities to comply with standards for fair and transparent elections. Europeans traveled to Kyiv to mediate between the parties. The United States was instrumental in ensuring that the Kuchma regime forestalled violence, of which there was a real danger. An important role was also played by thousands of international observers from Ukraine’s far-flung diaspora, including the United States and Canada, who also observed all three rounds of the election. The December 26 election that I witnessed for the OSCE, along with the huge number of fellow OSCE observers from North America and Europe who spent their Christmas in Ukraine, could not have stood in sharper contrast to what I saw in Kirovohrad a month earlier – a free, fair, open transparent election that demonstrated to the world what Ukraine is capable of.
Alas, the Orange Revolution did not fulfill all of its expectations. On the one hand, Ukraine became freer and Ukrainian identity was more firmly established, and civil society showed its power. However, corruption, weak rule of law and political dysfunction continued, seriously hampering Ukraine’s progress and eventually leading to the dismal rule of the man that President Yushchenko had defeated, the odious Mr. Yanukovych. It took the Euro-Maidan to begin the process of putting Ukraine back on track – a process greatly complicated by Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine but one that continues to this day thanks to those in Ukraine’s government and civil society dedicated to a brighter future for their country.
A footnote: writing this column reminded me that it was in Kirovohrad, while observing those terribly flawed elections, that I first met George Kent, whose name you might recognize as he, along with Ambassador Bill Taylor, were the first to testify publicly in the recent impeachment hearings in the U.S. Messrs. Kent and Taylor were among many principled and courageous public servants – along with Ambassador Maria (Masha) Yovanovitch, Col. Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill and others to offer eloquent testimony that in its own way spoke truth to power. If you do nothing else, read their compelling opening statements that so clearly demonstrate their strong support for Ukraine and their understanding of Ukraine’s vital role to our national interests. They, like many other dedicated and patriotic public servants in the executive branch and Congress, are Ukraine’s true friends.
Orest Deychakiwsky is Vice Chair of the Board of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. This essay originally appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly.