The Orange Revolution and Democratic change in Ukraine by Nicole Shantz

March 28, 2006

To stimulate interest among university students in the historic Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Shevchenko Scientific Society sponsored an essay contest. The best essay, as judged by three scholars, was that submitted by Nicole Shantz, a student of John Cabot University in Rome, Italy, who wrote it under the supervision of professors Federigo Argentieri and Lawrence Gray. We share this essay with you in the posting below.

The Orange Revolution and Democratic change in Ukraine
by Nicole Shantz

It’s terrible to lie in chains
And rot in dungy deep
But it’s still worse, when you are free
To sleep, and sleep, and sleep

(Taras Shevchenko, 1845)

Nicole Shantz


August 24, 2004 marked Ukraine’s thirteenth anniversary of independence. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians gathered into Kyiv’s Independence Square to celebrate a nation still lacking in sovereignty and democratic credence. Three months later, this same place would become home to the hundreds of thousands of protesters of the world renowned Orange Revolution in an act aimed against the same leaders that stood there that day: President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. It has been said that “today’s Ukraine is very much Mr. Kuchma’s creation”(1) and the President made no mistake in using his power as a political tool for the upcoming presidential campaign by calling for a continuation of the current political system rather than choosing a path of radical change. It was Yanukovych, Kuchma’s unquestionably preferred candidate that he presented to his people that day as the right solution for a secure future.

That day Kuchma presented the Ukrainian people with two options to choose from: “either to continue along the path laid out by the policies of the last decade, or face a new radical change in the direction that could lead to chaos and the fall of the economic renaissance”. (2)
Yushchenko, however, offered a third option: change. The two main issues that divided the candidates was firstly their approach to geopolitics and secondly their attitude towards ethnicity and regionalism within Ukraine.

It was the ongoing offer for change by Viktor Yushchenko, head of the opposition and centre-right coalition, Our Ukraine, which secured his eventual victory. Striking the heart of every common man, Yushchenko called for changes in the economy in order to raise employment and wages, and maintain price stability. In order for economic reform, he claimed that there must be political reform. Yushchenko understood that, “corruption to Ukrainians is what destroys our society, our morality and our way of life”(3). He accused Kuchma of heightening the constitutional power of the president for his own interests and security, instead of using his power and resources to promote the welfare of society.

The political culture of Ukraine has had a volatile evolution, marked by an outstanding period of growth during the Orange Revolution of late 2004. On December 1, 1991, 90.32% chose independence and the path of self-governance after centuries of oppressive rule by a foreign power. The first decade of independence, however, was not marked by the people taking advantage of the power recently bestowed upon them. It was only within the last year that the relationship between the government and the people has started to change.

Pessimism characterised the period preceding the Orange Revolution. The intimacy that President Kuchma rekindled with Russia during his second term in office (1999 – 2004) set the government on a regressive path towards the corruption and obscurity that characterizes its Soviet past. In 2004, Ukrainians felt as politically threatened and powerless as they almost always had before. When one Ukrainian civilian was asked to comment on the political culture of his countrymen, his reply reflects such pessimism: “We don’t vote here to make life better, but to stop it from getting worse”(4).

Historically, any such existence of a Ukrainian political culture has been suppressed, first by the tsars, then by the Bolsheviks, and finally by Kyiv-backed oligarchs. Independence was not handed over to the Ukrainians wholeheartedly, guaranteeing democracy as it was in the Baltic States and former People’s Democracies. Russia’s influence has remained heavy and recent progressions of a Ukrainian political culture that moves away from Russia and closer to the West has sparked heated political debate. Despite fourteen years of independence, Ukrainians have only now achieved their freedom. By uniting all Ukrainians together, Yushchenko won the support of his people and have set them on a path towards development that guarantees the changes they have long desired and deserve.


The official results of the November 21 runoff vote declaring Yanukovych the winner ignited the irrepressible fires of the Orange Revolution. The Committee of Voters of Ukraine reported that “2.8 million ballots were rigged in favour of the Prime Minister(5) and within days, four out of the fifteen members of the Central Election Commission’s (CEC) disagreed with the results(6). The CEC’s announcement that Yushchenko lost to Yanukovych 46.61 per cent to 49.46 per cent caused an uprising from both within Ukraine and abroad. The international community immediately denied that the election had been held freely and fairly, watching carefully to see what the crowds of Kyiv was capable of doing.

Hundreds of thousands of people invaded Kyiv’s city centre, supported by the police and military contingents. They blockaded government buildings, threatening to prohibit the President’s movements around the city if their demands to have the Prime Minister and separatist leaders fired from the government were not met. The aggressiveness of the crowds calmed down on December 1 when “the parliament passed a vote of no-confidence in the government of [the] Prime Minister… Yanukovych rejected the resolution completely, calling it politically motivated”(7).

Election fraud had been rampant and obvious. In addition to the election being unacceptable to the democratic abroad, many Ukrainian officials immediately revolted. More and more evidence of the election scandals began surfacing and information spread quickly. By November 28 it had been reported that “about 11,000 complaints have been lodged so far with regional courts”(8). Published and dispersed evidence of violations reminded Ukrainians of their corrupt government, still suck in its Soviet past.

The day after the vote, Yushchenko and his supporters announced a national strike. 100,000 people gathered into Independence Square(9) and 50,000 to 80,000 in Lviv(10). There were also protests abroad, such as that of 2,000 people in Toronto, Canada on November 23(11). Tension began mounting when paramilitary units and the SBU began joining the opposition in the streets(12). People stopped going to work and Kyiv soon became known as “tent city”. Members of the Ukrainian disapora and patriots from all over Ukraine, including miners from Donbas in eastern Ukraine(13) journeyed to Kyiv to become a part of the great opposition. The revolutionary spirit soon encompassed all of Ukraine.

After twelve days of protest, the Ukrainian Supreme Court announced the invalidity of the November 21 vote. The people had managed to keep Yushchenko in the game! Five days later, on December 8, the Supreme Court called for a runoff election between Yushchenko and Yanukovych on December 26. The following day, the CEC v
oted on and accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling and preparations were immediately made for the next round.


It has been the ongoing dominance of Russian interests in Ukraine that has caused the government to be the nation’s dividing force. While Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty was quickly acknowledged universally, many Russians found it difficult to accept Ukraine as an autonomous state outside their sphere of influence, and the Ukrainians as a separate people foreign to their land. Kuchma, a Russophone Ukrainian from the Chernihiv region in western Ukraine has tried to come off as Ukraine’s superhero, fighting the danger of ethnic conflict.

The ethnic issue has haunted Ukrainian governance since the beginning of the nineteenth century when visible, Russian dominance penetrated all spheres of society(14). Ethnic divisions are not drawn along Ukraine’s borders and the people have therefore struggled in defining themselves as a nation, particularly because of the stark similarities between the Ukrainian and Russian brothers. Cultural correlations are often more meaningful than national loyalties.

Yushchenko, the candidate mostly representing Western and Central Ukraine, was appointed Prime Minister by President Kuchma in 1999. Many claim that he was brought in to “boost an ailing economy”(15) but was quickly removed as a result of his reforms being too revolutionary and far-reaching. Yushchenko, the westward-looking candidate, favours integration with the EU and membership of the WTO. Yushchenko made his position on foreign affairs very clear from the beginning by simply stating that: “One seeks what is better. The social standards in Europe, so far, are better than, I beg your pardon, in Russia(16).

He passionately disagrees with the idea of there being two Ukraines and that he only represents one side of the country. He appealed to the electorate claiming that as president, it would be his duty to serve the interests of all Ukrainians by providing a better standard of living. He attacks the government by stating that:

This government is acting against peace and stability in Ukraine. The main principle of its work is divide and rule. Therefore, it has been successfully dividing Ukrainians into easterners and westerners, according to language and religion.(17)

Yanukovych, representing eastern and southern Ukraine, sought to reorient the nation toward closer ties with Russia. Yushchenko supported western integration and, though aware of the importance of good relations with Russia, upheld that as president, the interests of the Ukrainian people as a whole would come first, even if that meant that interests specific to Russia and Ukraine’s infamous oligarchs would be compromised. Yushchenko clarified his position on Russia, easing those such as Putin who, prior to the Orange Revolution, underestimated the democrats’ influence:

Russia is a large country which is an important market for Ukraine; The first commandment is – always live in accord with your neighbours. And that will be my policy and the policy of my government. I am convinced that Russia is our partner, our strategic partner. We must understand the interests of other countries, not damaging each other, but enhancing each other. But that does not mean that Ukraine does not have the right to achieve European integration and realize its interests in the world”.(18)

At the cost of European integration, Yanukovych is the candidate willing to succumb to Russia’s cunnings. Although NATO is not a threat to Russia, Ukraine within NATO is considered by Russia to be an unfriendly and aggressive act. Likewise, Ukraine within the EU is considered a political threat. Yuri Scherbak, Ambassador of Ukraine to the U.S. and Canada expressed his concerns over the direction Kuchma has swayed Ukraine in the recent years towards Russia. Claiming that “the ship is drifting away from the EU and NATO, in the direction of the Single Economic Space”, Scherbak appeals to the people of Ukraine to look at the situation realistically and the obvious benefits that the Ukrainian people are missing out on by not furthering their Euro-Atlantic integration(19).

Yushchenko refutes the idea of divisions between Ukrainians, pleading that his countrymen will come together as one to finally do away with the government’s corruption, now that it has the power to do so. The Orange Revolution came as a sudden shock to Russia, more so than Ukrainian independence in 1991, precisely because of the solidarity that existed between both eastern and western Ukrainians.

Putin was partly right when he denounced Polish President Kwasniewski’s comment on December 18, 2004 that “Russia without Ukraine is better than a Russia with Ukraine”(20). It is in nobody’s interest for relations between Russia and Ukraine to sour, not even the western Ukrainians. Yushchenko’s geostrategic path is bound to follow his predecessor’s course to a certain extent. It is in his interest to carry on the “balancing” and “bandwagoning” approach of the 1990s. By “balancing” his alliances with both Russia and the West, Yushchenko may be the one to hallmark greater transparency and understanding between the two regions. By “bandwagoning” into both European and Russian alliances through intergovernmental organizations, Ukraine has the possibility of spilling over the values, interests and potential of both sides which are in need of a closer set of values(21). Putin’s denouncement is also partly wrong when considering the path Russia has recently chosen to increase its influence in the region and over the peoples of its former territories.

Kwasniewski’s comment therefore harks back to what he said in 1996 that, “The more Ukraine is in Europe, the safer Europe is”(22) . While Europe, and in particular Eastern Europe is not ready to completely let go of its mistrust in Russia, Ukraine may be the answer for improved relations between the two blocs.


Suddenly, the outgoing president and his protégé were afraid of public opinion, while in the past, it was the people who were afraid of the regime.(23)

The Supreme Court’s disqualification of the results of the November 21 election discredited both the president and the prime minister, causing them to drastically change their political course. Kuchma began making concessions and negotiating with the obvious winner: Yushchenko. It was at this point that Kuchma realized that he was playing a new political game. No longer being the one always feared, Kuchma began to fear the power of the opposition. Yanukovych had found himself in an embarrassing and defensive situation. Politically abandoned, he realised that he “can no longer dictate terms to Kuchma, but must listen to what he is told for fear of being completely excluded from the family”(24) .

During the 20 December presidential debate, Yushchenko made it clear to his audience that he was the balanced candidate representing all of Ukraine. With an encouraging tone of faith in the potential of Ukraine, Yushchenko appeared excited about a new future. It was his offer for change and an alternative to the old and corrupt system that secured his victory. What Kuchma did not understand about his people was that stability, to them, was unacceptable. Yushchenko spoke out to all Ukrainians, regarding them as a single people, empowered by their unity. He soothed his Russian audience by claiming that “nobody will close a single Russian-language school… Every citizen will speak the language they find more convenient”(25).

This is a victory for the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian nation. We have been trying to achieve this for centuries. We have been independent for 14 years, but it is today that we have become free…
Today we are turning the page of disrespect for the people, lies, censorship and violence… An era of great new democracy begins.

Yushchenko’s victory of 51.99 per cent to 44.2 per cent sealed the Orange Revolution with a kiss. Even though the CEC did not announce his victory until more than two weeks after the vote, it was obvious to all Ukrainians and international observers that Ukrainians chose freedom over authoritarianism and corruption. The maturity of their national awareness was revealed by the fact that Ukrainians are no longer willing to submit to an oppressive government. Their demands for the government to serve them instead of itself were met. The political culture of the Ukrainians has therefore reached a new threshold in which the people are able to submit more of their trust to the government. It is through this confidence that the people of Ukraine can make their economy grow, express themselves as a nation, and integrate more closely with countries that share similar goals.

There is a new sovereign, both socially and politically, state on the map of Europe. A Ukrainian is not a Russian. Treat the Ukrainian state as a participant in European politics.(27)


Yushchenko’s plan for change, as opposed to Kuchma’s recommendation for stability and gradual evolution of the economy, was just what Ukrainians were looking for in their next president. Yushchenko has begun to fulfill his campaigning promises. He has taken the nation’s troops out of Iraq and attracted foreign interest and investment in Ukraine. He appears to be leading Ukraine down a healthy, economic path while securing the social benefits he promised throughout his campaign(28).

The economic reasons for Yushchenko’s close orientation with the West are starting to be realized; his main interests are those of the Ukrainian people, not those of America or Europe though they share similar values. Corruption was one of Yushchenko’s main items of concern throughout his campaign. The internal affairs and social welfare of the people are becoming ever more like that of its western neighbours. For the first time since independence, the Ukrainians in government are there to serve the people, and not to create advantages for themselves.

The Ukrainians are no longer superficially divided by ethnicity, language, or religion. Yushchenko pointed out and reminded his fellow Ukrainians that they are one nation, purposefully being divided by the government as a political tactic in the fight for power. The Orange Revolution reunited Ukraine by reminding them that they are all citizens of the same country and all share the same goals and aspirations for the future. The new government has respect for all of its citizens and plans to guarantee the same rights to all.

Ukraine is moving from being a state that fears multiculturalism to one that praises diversity. The people of Ukraine no longer have to fear the interests of the ‘Kuchma Group’ or ‘Donetsk Clan’ interfering with their political rights and chances for a brighter and more prosperous future. Likewise, the international community has more faith in a united Ukraine with a political culture that lives up to its democratic name. Ukrainians have taken this leap of faith and, as a result, have turned western pessimism of Ukraine in the 1990s(29) into positive relations, if not embracement by the West.

Since his inauguration, Yushchenko has tried to get the West’s attention and speed up the integration process of NATO, the EU and its first priority, the WTO. He has made fearless attempts to have the EU start thinking seriously about having Ukraine join their club. Yushchenko’s visit to Strasbourg to meet with the Council of Europe after the final round of elections revealed the commitment of Yushchenko’s European course. Reiterating that “full membership of the EU was Ukraine’s strategic goal” and that he would not allow for any alliances with Russia to stand in its way, Yushchenko reminded the Council of Europe that westward integration in Europe has been its long-term goal:

When Ukraine joined the Council of Europe in 1995, its intention was to become part of such a Europe, to share its values and to make a contribution to solving common problems.(30)

Now Ukraine finally has a president who is willing to institute the essential reforms to make this dream happen.

Yushchenko’s most progressive step westward, however, has been that which Ukraine has recently taken with President Bush, and not his European counterparts. Despite their differences of opinion on Iraq, these two heads of state were able to commit to similar agendas for the future, including “enhancing cooperation on fighting AIDS, curbing the proliferation of nuclear material and ballistic missiles, and completing the construction of a shelter over the old Chernobyl nuclear plant”(31). Their first official meeting in mid-February was scheduled to celebrate the “historical achievements of democracy in Ukraine”, while Bush emphasized the importance the Orange Revolution had in the promotion of democracy throughout the entire developing world(32).

The greatest achievement of the Orange Revolution was not the display of independence that Ukrainians made to the rest of the world; it was the seeds of national consciousness planted in 1991that had finally bloomed, solidifying a united people with a political culture. It was the message bestowed by Yushchenko in his political campaign that he was there to offer change. He had restored Ukrainians with hope.

It was not until the Orange Revolution that the people began to feel the extent of their power. Yushchenko will always be remembered as one of Ukraine’s greatest heroes, who brought hope and democracy to a long-subjected Ukraine. The people of Ukraine finally made it clear that they are no longer ruled by Moscow and demand to have a government that puts Ukraine’s interests first. Perched between east and west, and internally divided by regions, the Ukrainians have come together and made a display of what societies naturally desire and ultimately fight for: freedom.

1. Freeland, Chrystia. “East or West: Ukraine’s Election Could Alter Relations with Russia and Europe”, The Financial Times, 10-12-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 248, item 2.
2. Woronowycz, Roman. “Tens of Thousands in Kyiv Celebrate Anniversary of Ukraine’s Indpendence”, Kyiv Press Bureau, The Ukrainian Weekly, August 29, 2004, No. 35, Vol. LXXII. <>
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4. Paton, Nick. “Challenger for Ukraine Presidency Crises Foul Over Mystery Illness”, The Guardian (UK), 10-22-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 250, item 8.
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11. Bonnell, Greg
. “Protestors Speak Out on Election Crisis in Ukraine”, Canadian Press, 11-23-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 275, item 7.
12. “Security Service of Ukraine Supports Yushchenko”, Ukrains’ka Pravda, 11-25-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 281, item 1.
13. Stephen, Chris. “Paramilitary Units Backing Opposition Add to the Tension”, Irish Times, 12-1-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 295, item 15.
14. “Russification”. Encyclopedia of Ukraine. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993, p. 463.
15. Freeland, op cit.
16. “Opposition Leader Addresses Voters Live on TV”, BBC Monitoring, 10-29-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 254, item 8.
17. “Full Transcript of the Presidential Debate”, op cit.
18. Maceda, Jim. “Q&A with Viktor Yushchenko”,, 12-4-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 301, item 6.
19. Scherbak, Yuri. “Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Community”, 24-9-2004, in the Action Ukraine Report 2004, n. 176, item 6.
20. “Press Conference by Vladimir Putin”, 12-23-2004, in Dominique Are’s (comp), The Ukraine List n. 323, item 8.
21. Balmaceda, Margarita M. On the Edge: Ukrainian – Central European – Russian Security Triangle. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2000. p. 20-23.
22. Nahaylo, Bohdan. The Ukrainian Resurgence. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd, 1999. p. 520.
23. Hochuli, Ron. “A Country at the Crossroads of Its History”, La Liberté, 12-22-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 323, item 13.
24. Wynnyckyj, Mychailo. “Speculation and Predictions Regarding the Current Situation in Kyiv”, 11-30-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 293, item 4.
25. “The Presidential Debate Between Yushchenko and Yanukovych”. 20-12-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 322.
26. “Yushchenko Claims Victory”, TV 5 Kanal, 10-27-2004, in Dominique Arel’s (comp.), The Ukraine List n. 327, item 4.
27. “Polish President Kwasniewski on the Behind-the-Scenes of the Roundtable”, op cit.
28. Sieff, Martin. “Ukraine Acts on U.N.-Funded Reform Plan”, United Press International, 1-17-2005, in the Action Ukraine Report, n. 412, item 1.
29. Polokhalo, Volodymyr. The Political Analysis of Postcommunism: Understanding Postcommunist Ukraine. First Texas A&M University Press edition, 1997. p. 341-345.
30. “New Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko Addresses Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe”, TV 5 Kanal, 1-25-2004, in the Action Ukraine Report, n. 417, item 1.
31. Baker, Peter. “Bush Promises More Help to Ukraine: President Says U.S. Will Assist Move Toward West, Dropping Trade Barriers”, The Washington Post Company 4-5-2005.
32. “Bush Requests $60 Million More for Ukraine”,, 2-15-2005.