Orange Revolution

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The Orange Revolution was the successful democratic political upheaval of 2004 in Ukraine. The presidential election of 2004 brought Ukraine to the brink of civil war. Scandal-ridden President Leonid Kuchma endorsed the candidacy of his Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was also strongly supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Viktor Yushchenko, running on an anticorruption, anticronyism platform, led the opposition.

In September Yushchenko's health strangely deteriorated; he had been poisoned by the Ukrainian State Security Service, which left his face disfigured. Yanukovych also tried to portray Yushchenko as an American lackey who would undermine the stable relationship that Ukraine had developed with Russia under Kuchma. The Yanukovych campaign called his opponent "Bushenko" and circulated posters and leaflets warning of a U.S.-orchestrated civil war in Ukraine similar to those in Bosnia, Serbia, and Iraq should Yushchenko come to power.

The first round on Oct. 31 showed Yanukovych and Yushchenko each with 40%. Yanukovych ran up huge margins in the east, where most Russians lived. The west and Kiev voted for Yushchenko. In the November runoff, the government declared Yanukovych the winner. Yushchenko's supporters charged fraud and staged mass protests that came to be known as the Orange Revolution. Massive demonstrations erupted; Yanukovych's supporters in the east threatened to secede from Ukraine (and join Russia) if the results were overturned. A new runoff was held on Dec. 26. Yushchenko won with 52% and was inaugurated on Jan. 23, 2005.

The outcome was the result of multiple forces: the old system was weakened by

  • (1) competitive authoritarianism. Ukraine's three largest oligarchic groups did back Kuchma and used their media and financial resources to back his candidate in 2004, but significant if lesser oligarchs backed Yushchenko, as did tens of thousands of smaller businesspeople. Thus Ukraine's economic elites were divided, not united, in the fall of 2004.
  • (2) an unpopular leader. A mere 8% of Ukrainians approved of Kuchma's tenure; 62% disapproved, often believing he engineered the murder of an opponent. Yanukovych was a convicted felon who still maintained ties with criminal circles in his hometown region of Donetsk.
  • (3) division among the armed forces.

The factors that strengthened the democratic opposition, were (1) a successful opposition campaign, (2) the ability to expose fraud, (3) the means to communicate information about the falsified vote, and (4) the capability to mobilize masses to protest the fraudulent election.

Although the George W. Bush administration never targeted its financial resources at fomenting revolution, it spent more than $18 million in election-related assistance efforts in Ukraine in the two years leading up to the 2004 election.

Ukraine's Freedom House scores jumped from partially free in 2004 to free in 2005.

Canadian news magazine reports, Dec. 13, 2004


The deep divisions that have become evident under Yushchenko had their origins in Ukraine's regionalism, the "Kuchmagate" crisis, antiregime protests, and different attitudes to dealing with the past. The country is divided by linguistic and regional cleavages that appear sharply in regional polarization in national elections. These divisions have led to constant questioning of the viability of the Ukrainian state and predictions of violence and civil war. Secessionist movements have made few inroads, however, and violence has been nonexistent. Because the "minority" group in Ukraine is actually quite large, it has immense influence in the state without resort to regional autonomy or secession. The balance of power between Ukraine's regions and ethnic groups has ensured that neither side has dominated. This does not make for rapid reform, but it has created a stable state.

Further reading

  • Aslund, Anders, and Michael McFaul, eds. Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine's Democratic Breakthrough (2006)
  • Aslund, Anders. How Ukraine Became a Market Economy and Democracy (2009)
  • Kubicek, Paul. The History of Ukraine (2008) excerpt and text search
  • McFaul, Michael. "Ukraine Imports Democracy: External Influences on the Orange Revolution," International Security, Volume 32, Number 2, Fall 2007, pp. 45–83 in Project MUSE
  • Wilson, Andrew. Ukraine's Orange Revolution (2005)