The Orange Revolution: The Mass Popular Uprising In Ukraine – OpEd


On 23 January, Ukraine marked the 17th anniversary of the successful conclusion of its second revolution in the last thirty years – the Orange Revolution, which began on 21 November 2004. For three months, the attention of the world media was focused on these unprecedented events in the former Soviet republic. The mass protests in the capital Kyiv and across the country were an acute societal reaction to electoral fraud of an unprecedented scale during the presidential elections committed by the incumbent president Kuchma’s regime. The Orange Revolution was one of a series of so-called ‘colour revolutions’, in which the protesters wore coloured symbols. These revolutions swept across various world regions at the turn of the millennium and successfully overthrew authoritarian regimes. 

Even before the coming presidential elections set for October 2004, it was clear that there would be two leading contenders – Victor Yanukovich and Victor Yushchenko. Yanukovich represented the Donetsk oligarchic clan and was backed by President Leonid Kuchma.Yushchenko was representing the united opposition to Kuchma’s regime. In order to prevent the victory of the candidate from the opposition, the regime used typical for such regimes ‘dirty technologies’. The authorities regularly violated rules, thus failing to meet minimal democratic standards of the electoral process.

The regime spread lies and fake news to discredit the leading candidate from the opposition. Several spoiler candidates were put forward to distract votes from Yushchenko. Different kinds of provocations regularly took place, such as obstruction of freedom of assembly or disruption of the opposition’s electoral activities. The opposition candidate had limited access to the TV airtime. However, the most outrageous were two attempts to murder Yushchenko. Onewas an attempt to his life by a car accidentin August 2004. Then in September 2004, Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned by dioxin through food.He survived, but as a result, his health severely suffered, and his face was seriously disfigured.

In the first round of the elections on 31 October 2004, twenty-four candidates participated. As was expected, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich received the most votes. Yushchenko had led the race with almost forty per cent of votes received; Vanukovich was slightlybehind. The second round between the two leading contenders was scheduled for 21 November. Meanwhile, many people complained about a massive fraud committed favouring the regime’s representative Yanukovich. The international observers also concluded that the campaign did not meet standards for democratic elections. Obviously, the opposition expected falsifications in the second round too. Still, it did not expect them to reach such a scale that would prevent their candidate’s victory. Nevertheless, the opposition had a plan B, which was implemented when it became known about the scale and the outrageous arrogance of the falsifications. 

In the second round on 21 November, according to various national exit polls, the winner was Viktor Yushchenko with 49 to 54 per cent votes, while Viktor Yanukovych received only 43 to 46 per cent of the votes. However, the first official results published by the Central Electoral Commission in the early hours of 22 November indicated that Yanukovych was winning. Meanwhile, there were broadly reported facts about the mass falsifications, which considerably exceeded the scale of falsifications in the first round of elections. The official results were hardly believable, considering the results of the exit polls and that in the first round, Yushchenko received more votes than Yanukovych. Also, Alexander Moroz, the third-place candidate in the first round, clearly supported Yushchenko for the second round,  as well as Anatoly Kinakh, another participant in the first round.

Therefore the opposition started to set the tents on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the canter of  Kyiv. Meanwhile, people from all over the country began to arrive in the capital. On 22 November, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Kyiv, blocking the main government buildings. About one hundred thousand people gathered on the Maidan Square by the early afternoon.Activists of the youth organisation “Pora” set up over one hundred tents, and their number was constantly growing. Numerous rallies in support of Viktor Yushchenko took place in many cities across Ukraine. As the protests continued, support for Yushchenko expanded to include even many government and city councilofficials in various citiesacross Ukraine. They expressed distrust in the Central Electoral Commission and refused to recognize the results of the second run-off.With the exceptions of Russia, Belarus, China and some other autocracies, the international community did not recognize the outcome of the second round. They called for the negotiation and peaceful resolution of the crisis. Several international mediators arrived in Kyiv to facilitate the negotiations. On 3 December, Ukraine’s Supreme Court decided to invalidate the second round results and ruled to carry out on 26 December 2004 a new run-off between Yushchenko and Yanukovych. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, from all social strata, men and women, young and old, continued to protest across the country. 

Meanwhile, the opposing sides negotiated. Victor Yushchenko, Victor Yanukovych, and President Kuchma, joined by the international mediators, spent long, arduous hours in round-table bargaining. Finally, both sides achieved the compromise and although reluctantly, Yanukovych and Kuchma agreed to a new round of the vote. In turn, Yushchenko agreed to some legislative changes, which weakened the new president’s powers. Kuchma feared that if the regime lost the next round of elections, a strong president could take revenge on him. Parliament passed the legislation which reduced presidential powers and made some changes in the electoral law to ensure a more fair vote. Members of the Central Electoral Commission were changed, the officials associated with the electoral fraud were sacked. Therefore, this Supreme Court decision substantially resolved the crisis. Mainly it was the protesters’ victory. It marked the end of the first phase of the popular revolt; thus, the Orange Revolution entered its second phase – another round of elections. The encampment on the Maidan and another one set at the presidential administration remained during the December elections to ensure the people would not tolerate falsifications. 

Overall, the international community watched this time much more closely. By then, the Orange Revolution became the focal point of the world media. Thus the local media also presented Yushchenko in a more positive light. Some high-ranking politicians shifted their support from Yanukovych to Yushchenko, expecting Yushchenko’s victory in the third round. On 26 December, in addition to the numerous local observers, the vote was scrutinized by an unprecedented number of international observers. Over twelve thousand five hundred of them from many countries and numerous international organisations have monitored the vote. 

This time Yushchenko was the clear winner with 52  per cent votes against 44 per cent votes for Yanukovych. On 23 January, Viktor Yushchenko took the oath of office in an inauguration ceremony in Kyiv, becoming the third president of Ukraine. The drama of the victorious Orange Revolution was over. Unfortunately, to the disappointment of many, President Yushchenko did not live up to the high expectations of the people of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the dramatic events of the Orange Revolution represented the beginning of the new stage in democratisation in the country, which since its independence in 1991 was trapped in the limbo of the hybrid political regime, oscillating between democracy and authoritarianism. The Orange Revolution gave confidence to millions of Ukrainians, allowing them to believe that the power belonged to people and they were in charge. The struggle has continued. 

 *Oleg Chupryna, PhD Candidate, Centre for European and Eurasian Studies, Department of Sociology, Maynooth University, Ireland.

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