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An Epitaph For The Orange Revolution?

Members of the Election Commission prepare voting booths at a polling station in Kyiv.
Members of the Election Commission prepare voting booths at a polling station in Kyiv.
"Ukraine’s Orange Revolution Sours.” “Defeat of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.” “Orange Revolution Dream Fades.” “The Orange Revolution Is History.” “The Orange Revolution Fades to Black.” “Death of the Orange Revolution.”

Headlines like these screamed from the pages of Western publications after the first round of Ukraine's presidential election on January 17. Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko suffered a humiliating showing, garnering just 5.5 percent of the vote, while his former nemesis Viktor Yanukovych walked off with 35.2 percent.

The very same journalists and pundits who were giddy about the Orange Revolution in 2004 were just as eager to pronounce it a bust five years later.

Most would agree that Yushchenko, the man who personified the Orange call for change, has proven to be a disappointing and weak president. He was, however, quick to remind us that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international observers deemed the first round of voting free and fair. This, he said, was a tangible achievement of the Orange Revolution.

Yanukovych speaks to his supporters in Simferopol.
But what was that “revolution” really about? Was it in fact a revolution at all?

Having stood many a long cold hour on the Maidan in 2004 and put up many a protester in my flat in Kyiv during those frosty months, I can honestly say that the so-called Orange Revolution was more of a party than a revolution. People from all over Ukraine -- from Odesa to Lviv, from Kyiv to Zaporizhzhia -- took to the streets because they had been cheated. Then, one thing that truly belonged to them -- their vote, their voice in their country’s future -- had been taken from them. And like that angry Peter Finch character in the 1976 film “Network,” they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Since then, Ukraine has held three elections -- two parliamentary votes and the first presidential round last month. All of them were free of fraud and judged to be fair by international observers. The second round, too, should be free and fair, despite the mutual accusations and hysteria that both Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Yanukovych are stirring up.

This is no small accomplishment.

Furthermore, when one looks at the low voter turnout in most Western countries, the 67 percent turnout in the January first round clearly shows that Ukrainians haven’t developed election fatigue. They take their elections seriously and are determined to be part of the political process.

Who Will It Be?

Yes, there is disappointment, disenchantment, and a pervasive feeling of being powerless to influence what elected officials do. The people, however, have not given up on the ideals of the Orange movement. Rather, their leaders have. And so far there is no indication that Ukrainians as a voting public are willing to surrender their right to change their political reality through the ballot box.

And now for the actual final Orange test. Who will it be -- Viktor Yanukovych or Yulia Tymoshenko? And what will they do with the Orange legacy, a legacy that perhaps still needs to be created?

Yanukovych has been quite vociferous about wanting to put all things Orange behind him, calling the entire exercise a “plague.” Neither he nor any member of his team has ever admitted any wrongdoing in the 2004 elections, which were rife with ballot-stuffing and fraud.

Tymoshenko, meanwhile, has positioned herself as the natural heiress of the Orange ideals – which, in point of fact, she is. After all, it was her engaging oratory, slightly wicked sense of humor, and utter fearlessness that gave the movement its mojo.

A Tymoshenko campaign banner in central Kyiv.
But the rules have been changed in mid-game. Ukraine’s parliament changed the election law, doing away with the provision for election committees to sign off on polling-station results via a two-thirds quorum of representatives of both candidates. Local authorities can now fill any vacancies. Higher-level election commissions now have greater power to intervene in the decisions of lower commissions. Twenty-nine members of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc voted for the bill, and Yushchenko promptly signed it into law.

"It's not the people who vote that count. It's the people who count the votes." This adage, attributed to Josef Stalin, makes these last-minute changes appear quite menacing. That Yushchenko, who nearly lost the election in 2004 due to fraud on the part of the Yanukovych team, is willing to support his former nemesis in weakening the insurance mechanisms that were set down in the original election law to prevent fraud, speaks volumes as to what legacy he has chosen to leave behind.

Nevertheless, the fact that one day before the election it is difficult to predict the winner is a wonderful indicator of…yes, the fruits of unsophisticated Orange-born democracy. Compared to the practiced predictability of Russian elections, Ukraine’s chaotic and brash elections, despite their lack of new faces or fresh ideas, seem a breath of fresh air, an unequivocal expression of freedom and a longing for something better.

“What a bore to fly forward, simply to go back,” wrote the talented Ukrainian poet Yevhen Pluzhnyk, who was killed during Stalin’s purges.

Is it too late to prevent this from becoming the real epitaph of the Orange Revolution?

Irena Chalupa is the director of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.