How Much Has Changed?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was above all a revolt against fakery and fraud. By 2004, local vocabulary had filled up with terms like ‘political technology’ and ‘administrative resources’, as though these were perfectly acceptable technical aspects of post-Soviet politics.

Vadym Gladchuk, head of the Youth Is Ukraine's Hope youth organization burns a bunch of orange flags of pro-presidential Our Ukraine political bloc during a protest in front of the Cabinet building in Ukraine's capital Kiev

Over the last 16 months, I have always felt that Ukrainian voters would initially have forgiven a lot economically, if the first two Orange governments had done more to cleanse the system of such practices. Instead, they put economics before politics, hoping to buy votes in the run-up to 2006, and in a crude overture to voters in the south and east.

And of course the economy suffered. But how much has changed politically? The first obvious difference for the 2006 elections is that we heard much less about (normally Russian) ‘political technologists’ this time around. They were still employed on lucrative contracts, but were not strutting around Kyiv like an occupying army, or constantly pronouncing from on high, as masters of the universe.

Indeed, the Ukrainian market has opened up to the outside world and become more of a normal PR market. The Party of Regions, which gained the most votes in the March 26 election, employed Americans. President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine worked with Russians like Stanislav Belkovsky, according to rumor at least, without of course accepting a Russian agenda.

The second obvious difference is that fake parties were much less successful this time around. Ukrainian voters have wised up to ‘big board parties’, whose million-dollar budgets made minimal impacts. Many of the supposedly omnipotent oligarchs miscalculated badly this time. Tycoon Viktor Pinchuk failed with Viche.

Tycoon Oleksandr Yaroslavsky failed with outgoing parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. The Industrial Union of Donbass failed with Eko+25%. (The anti-Western) Ne tak! was too negative, or perhaps just too confusing. Nobody wanted to vote for a double negative, ‘No to No to (former President Leonid) Kuchma’.

Ironically, there was a ‘third force’ electorate out there – 21 percent voted for smaller parties that failed to cross the 3 percent barrier – but no single project tapped its potential. Lytvyn’s party was the biggest failure in this respect. Its campaign was too long.

Its inclusive ‘My’ (We) appeal, neutral green colors and pitch to rural voters was just a bit too rich for a party of urban multi-millionaires. Its attempt to portray itself as the civilized party between the warring extremes was just a bit too absurd for a party that in reality functions like the Oakland Raiders in the NFL or Blackburn Rovers in the English soccer league – the teams where all the bad guys eventually end up.

Nor was the negative impact of fake parties as important as in the past. Collectively, they took over a fifth of the vote away from the winners, but neither side suffered disproportionately; unlike in 2002, when ‘fly’ parties took most of their bites out of the then opposition, or in 1998, when they mainly swarmed around the left.

That said, if Natalia Vitrenko’s ‘Popular Opposition’ bloc were to succeed in its appeal against the results, then the parliamentary arithmetic would suddenly look a lot different.

The Orange parties currently have a majority because their three parties took three over-representations from the ‘proportional representation’ system, whereas this effect was much smaller for the one-and-a-half parties on the other side (Regions, the Communists). In other words, only a few more votes for Lytvyn (2.43%), Vitrenko (2.93%) or Viche (1.74%) may have swung the election.

The result is a strange imbalance in the new Rada. On the one hand, Akhmetov is the only major oligarch with a (sub) faction of his own – Regions. On the other hand, every faction now has its ‘sponsors’.

Our Ukraine has its ‘dear friends’, but former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc has the likes of Vasyl Khmelnytsky, who was previously notorious for helping Kuchma set up fake opposition parties to compete with the real opposition; and Bohdan Hubsky, one of the Kyiv business elite’s not-so-magnificent-seven. The Socialists have Andriy Derkach and ‘metallurgists’ like Volodymyr Boiko.

Are the oligarchs, large and small, now so ubiquitous that they will shape the new system, or will the new system dictate to them? Significantly, Voloymyr Boiko failed to deliver his home-town vassal vote in Mariupol.

Pinchuk and Yaroslavsky have sought to clean up their images after their recent deals with Banca Intesa and BNP Paribas (to which the two tycoons recently sold their Ukrainian banks). Akhmetov’s recent attempts to fold his old businesses into more transparent daughter companies like MetInvest and Embrol Ukraine may mean him taking the same route.

The prevalence of business sponsors on all the party lists, however, meant that even the Orange parties fought the elections with a certain virtual veneer. Tymoshenko’s ads promoted the message that social ‘justice’ was provided by her own ‘heart’ when she was prime minister, and sought to identify her conscience with the nation’s own. Her outfits carefully matched the campaign’s colors.

However, the ‘virtual’ part of Tymoshenko’s campaign was well-tuned to her ‘real’ message. ‘Justice’ was what Orange voters wanted. Tymoshenko’s campaign has also set her up well for the next phase. If Our Ukraine does a deal with Regions, her eponymous party may well eclipse it completely. If Our Ukraine does a deal with her, all eyes will be on whether she can deliver ‘justice’ in government.

Our Ukraine’s campaign has already been forgotten. It wasn’t particularly ‘virtual’. It was just bad. The ‘Don’t betray the Maidan!’ slogan prompted the obvious thought that this was precisely what the Yushchenko team had already done. And at a time when voters were desperate to revitalize the Orange Revolution, it was far too backward-looking.

Other aspects of the old political system are alive and well. The political technologists may have taken a back seat, so that there were fewer ‘active measures’ in 2006, but it will take years to disentangle the web of corruption that feeds ‘information wars’ and the Ukrainian addiction to kompromat.

There was plenty of shocking negative campaigning, such as the flyers depicting Tymoshenko as menopausal. There were so many PR ‘hits’, like the Pukach ‘disclaimer’, that it is still difficult to distinguish virtual scandals from real. Continuing information wars may also give virtual parties a new lease on life as channels for black PR, as with the notorious ads for Za soyuz.

Ultimately, the revolutions we remember are the ones that earn labels, the ones that come to symbolize great changes of epoch, like the ‘springtime of nations’ in 1848 or the Iranian ‘Islamic revolution’ in 1979.

Future historians will continue to write of the ‘Orange Revolution’, if 2004 acquires adjectives beyond mere color, i.e., if the changes in Ukraine come to be seen as a turning point in the region, after which politics moved away from the ‘technology’ of trickery and actually began to improve people’s lives.

So far, however, apart from an arguable immediate impact in the Romanian election of December 2004 and some inspiration of the half revolution-half coup in Kyrgyzstan, the Orange contagion has failed to spread to other states. It has inspired movements, but no actual repeat performances. So far, negative lessons and the spread of counter-technology have been more apparent.

The Belarusian election, for example, was won through an overdose of ‘administrative resources’, but equally important were new counter-revolutionary ‘technologies’. The authorities prevented any meaningful parallel count or exit poll that might have served to set off an ‘electoral revolution’.

They also made it difficult for the opposition to replicate the tactics of ‘strategic non-violence’ advocated by the likes of Gene Sharp, by maintaining a united front and cutting off communication with potential hinterlands of civic support.

They also used ‘political technology’ (Gleb Pavlovsky visited Minsk before the vote). As in 2001, Siarhei Haidukevich was again used to fake the politics of protest and split the opposition vote. But more serious questions should be asked about the fourth candidate, Aliaksandr Kozulin, long-rumored to be a Russian ‘project’.

Certainly, his rash call for direct action on the key day of demonstrations, Saturday, March 25, provided the authorities with the excuse they needed to crack down, and gave them the virtual ‘story’ they needed for the domestic audience. It will be interesting to see how much Lukashenka now ‘owes’ Russia for its help.

So at least the contrast with Ukraine is now remarkable. Politics in Ukraine is a long way from becoming totally clean, but it has already moved a long way from the regional norm. We should not forget the progress that has been made since 2004, but we should also not underestimate the strength of the old system to fight back.

Source: Kyiv Post