Mary Dejevsky: So what went wrong with the orange revolution?

The truth is that its victory was never as sweeping as those stirring images suggested
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Who did not cheer for Ukraine when crowds thronged Kiev's Independence Square and propelled the horribly disfigured Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency? Ukraine, according to the Western consensus, had heroically broken the bonds that tied it to Russia and earned itself a place on the fast track to democracy. Membership of the European Union and Nato could not be far behind.

Now, that same Western consensus is declaring itself shocked and disappointed by the results of Ukraine's parliamentary elections. Hopes that the new parliament would bolster the President's authority and speed the introduction of Western-style market reforms have been dashed. The orange revolution, we are told, has turned sour.

To condemn Ukraine for choosing a supposedly retrograde course now, however, is just as wrong as it was to exalt Ukraine to the skies before. Ukraine's embrace of the orange revolution was never as unambiguous as it was presented, just as the latest election results are nothing like the unmitigated disaster we are now given to believe.

Contrary to popular mythology, Yushchenko was not elected by a landslide in December 2004. He won 52 per cent of the vote, compared with the 44 per cent won by his rival, Viktor Yanukovych. After the rigged second round, Yanukovych's vote held up relatively well, thanks to a combination of loyal ethnic Russian voters and Ukrainians who feared the consequences of Western-style economic reforms.

Preliminary figures for the latest election show that, proportionately, not a great deal has changed. Yanukovych's Regions Party is likely to end up with most seats in the new parliament, having won one-third of the vote. But his party is in first position only because the alliance that waged the orange revolution has split. The party of the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is on course to win around 25 per cent of the vote, with Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party around 15 per cent.

These figures show, first, that if the parties of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had campaigned as a bloc - as, essentially, they did for the presidency - they would have the largest presence in the new parliament. They show, second, that even if Yushchenko goes into coalition with Yanukovych, there is still likely to be a reformist majority in parliament, albeit a small one.

It is simply not true to say that the orange revolution has been defeated. The truth is rather that its victory was never as sweeping as the stirring images of banner-waving crowds in Independence Square suggested. The truth is also that, although Yushchenko was the reformist candidate for President, it was Tymoshenko's populist rhetoric and drive that galvanised the crowds in Independence Square. His popular appeal was always going to suffer if, as happened last summer, she left the government.

The discrepancy between the presentation and reality of the orange revolution is one reason why it ran into such trouble so soon. Swayed by the seductive songs of their Western supporters, Ukraine's orange revolutionaries behaved as though their domestic support was far larger and more homogenous than it actually was. They seemed to take their cue from the so-called "rose" revolution in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Mikhail Saakashvili came to power on a wave of popular support for his anti-corruption campaign and free-market philosophy. And even he has not had everything his own way.

In Ukraine, Yushchenko inherited the leadership of a country that was and remains far more ethnically and ideologically divided than Georgia. These divisions meant that his government found it hard to enact change, even with the nominal support (initially) of the old parliament. Yushchenko's other difficulty was that he was swept to power on a pro-Western idea, rather than specific policies for Ukraine. It was not long before the cracks between his liberalism and Tymoshenko's more doctrinaire approach began to show.

The new parliament will be less reformist and less exclusively orientated towards the West than out-and-out supporters of the orange revolution abroad had hoped. Just because some people do not like the outcome, however, does not mean that this poll does not represent a considerable achievement.

Ukraine has just conducted an election that was recognised by OSCE observers as free and fair. It was an election that passed off peacefully, with no overt Russian interference and no high-profile lobbying from the US administration. It has produced a parliament that will be more representative of Ukraine's national aspirations, economic potential and geographic constraints than its predecessor. And this means that the next government should have a real chance to govern, once the bargaining over a coalition is complete. Is this such a bad balance sheet for the orange revolution 15 months on?