Transatlantic Take

This Is Not the Orange Revolution

April 10, 2016

KYIV, Ukraine – Invoking Yogi Berra’s overused quote may seem cliché, but for Kyiv watchers, it seems a bit like “déjà vu all over again.” A continued stalemate and infighting between the president and prime minister caused the latter to resign. Corruption and a dysfunctional political system hinder the implementation of badly needed reforms. Russian pressure and exploitation of a broken post-Soviet system further erodes political capacity in Kyiv and divides interests in the regions. And while this story may sound familiar, this is not the mid-2000s and I am not talking about the Orange Revolution.

To start, for many in Ukraine the political situation today is existential. To understand the difference, it is critical to underscore how much Russia’s action has catalyzed this change. This must start with dispelling a mistake often made in many analyses of the Maidan revolution — chiefly in the thinking that the protests were all that pro-Western in nature. Rather, they comprised a conglomeration of pro-Ukrainian, pro-EU, anti-Russian constituencies united in their opposition to the government of Viktor Yanukovych’s handling of the Accession Agreement negotiations and the political status quo. The tragic events of early 2014 solidified these identities and infused pro-Ukrainian, pro-Western, and anti-Russian sentiments more widely across the anti-status quo movement.

The shooting of Maidan protesters, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and the Kremlin’s continued driver-seat role in the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine have given staying power to reform-oriented forces in Ukraine despite Kyiv’s persistent political shortcomings. This is an important departure from the Orange Revolution script. During a visit to Odessa with the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America, one activist that had also participated in the Orange Revolution demonstrations told me that the difference today is that there is no other choice. Because of Russia’s actions, Ukrainians do not have a “status quo” to return to.

This was not the case during the mid-2000s. Many urged reform, yet Ukraine’s oligarchic interests and the tensions of its multi-vector tendencies outlasted these ambitions. The voices of reform faded. It is clear that many of the same challenges that plagued the Yushchenko government are persisting in the post-Maidan era today, but it does not seem the voices of the Maidan will soon fade.

Secondly, it is simply no longer possible for Ukraine to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy in the current political context given the existential threat facing Kyiv and the elements of the Maidan movement throughout society. Moreover, Ukraine’s diplomatic exposure to European and U.S. attention has skyrocketed with politicians often jet-setting to Kyiv and providing political support, while also reiterating the need for reforms and conveying growing impatience. Discussions about Ukraine and the EU are ever-present; NATO has also gained more support among the wider population. A poll last summer showed that 53 percent of Ukrainians favored joining NATO. In 2010, that number was only 28 percent.

Lastly, ongoing violence and the flow of internally displaced persons has had a broad-reaching impact on society. A significant volunteer culture has appeared in Ukraine, particularly among the youth. An evident catalyst has been their desire to help fundraising for the government-dubbed “Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone” participants. And with the failures of the Ukrainian military after the start of conflict in the Donbas, many members of the Ukrainian population have privately donated to Ukraine’s military to help fill the gap left by government.

This is not to paint a rosy picture for the government in Kyiv or the road ahead. The political challenges are as difficult as they have ever been. The change in prime minister, the saga of Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin’s resignation, the Panama Paper revelations, and the continued consolidated financial (and effectively political) power in the hands of a select few indicate that Ukraine has a long way to go. Yet, the political class remains under pressure internally and externally to push through reforms, address corruption, and government failures.

With many persistent obstacles, the most difficult reality for Ukraine’s political class to deal with is that the dissatisfactions of the Maidan movement are not likely to go away. Given this, newly appointed Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman’s recommitment to IMF reforms is encouraging. But, time will tell. There is significant room for greater frustration across the population beyond what already exists. And while the peaceful protests of late 2013 and early 2014 were an inspiration to the international community, growing disenchantment and populist sentiments spreading throughout all of Europe could possibly push the next Maidan in a different direction.