Ukraine Must Learn from Errors of the Orange Revolution

It is not often that second chances come around in history. But the dramatic events in Kiev have given Ukrainians a second chance to turn their backs decisively on the country’s post-Soviet malaise and instead choose a democratic European future. Though tensions remain high, the Ukrainian parliament’s decision to remove Viktor Yanukovych as president hopefully ends the country’s steep descent into a mafia state, or worse, a bloody civil war. But to succeed, Ukraine’s next leaders must learn from past mistakes made during the decade between the Orange Revolution and the turmoil and bloodshed of the past few months.

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The Orange Revolution — which overturned the stolen presidential election of 2004 and ushered in a spirit of new democracy and hope — was led by, and then undone by, Viktor Yushchenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko. Once in power, their tight alliance on the Maidan transformed into a bitter rivalry, and infighting quickly replaced governance. Ukrainians’ dashed expectations led them to return Yanukovych to power, a corrupt politician who stole the first presidential election in 2004. He, in turn, sent Tymoshenko to prison while Yushchenko became marginalized.

If Ukraine’s new leaders are to have a shot at building a democratic, prosperous country on track to join the European Union, they must learn five key lessons from the unraveling of both the Orange Revolution and Yanukovych.

Lesson #1: Unity at the top

The success of the recent protests reflects the disciplined unity of three leaders with less rather than more in common: boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk and nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok. The dramatic release of Tymoshenko from prison reverses one of Yanukovych’s most egregious injustices. At the same time, her reincarnation on the Maidan introduces a wildcard. What will be the impact of this determined, fiery personality, fueled by a sense of revenge, joining forces with those who have been protesting since last November? Can these disparate forces remain a unified governing force? If they can’t they will quickly lose the confidence of the Ukrainian people and, more saliently, the EU and the IMF.

Lesson #2: Focus on effective governance

After a burst of significant progress in the first year after the Orange Revolution during which Ukraine gained market economy status and joined the World Trade Organization, reforms stalled as Yushchenko failed to translate his rhetoric into policy. Tymoshenko eschewed tough reforms, opting for more populist policies in an attempt to curry favor with the electorate.

Lesson #3: Govern inclusively

After 2004, there was a sense that western Ukrainian leaders had triumphed over eastern Ukrainian leaders. This bred resentment among the roughly half of the electorate which speaks Russian as its first language. While Yanukovych’s misrule faced significant protests on his home turf in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine’s new team must govern inclusively and ensure that Ukraine’s voters in the east and south have as much of a stake in their success as those in the west and center.

The divisions between east and west Ukraine are often exaggerated; many easterners who speak Russian as their first language identify as Ukrainian. Nonetheless, Russian leaders have shown a willingness to stoke separatist sentiments, especially in Crimea. And some nationalist leaders in the erstwhile opposition have been too willing to trample on minority rights. The new parliamentary majority has demonstrated good judgment so far by naming a minister of interior who hails from Kharkiv, the largest city in eastern Ukraine.

Lesson #4: Be serious about corruption

Corruption is not a nuisance in Ukraine; it is a national security crisis. Ukrainians abandoned Orange Revolution leaders when credible stories of corruption swirled around Yushchenko and his family. Similarly, the meteoric rise of Yanukovych’s son from modest dentist to among the country’s wealthiest soured public opinion. The tradition in Ukraine has been for leaders to line their pockets through opaque gas deals with Russia. In turn, Moscow keeps Ukraine in an economic vice and gains blackmail leverage over its leaders. Ukraine’s new leaders must break the cycle of corrupt leaders working to perpetuate their own rule.

Lesson #5: Gain and maintain the trust of European leaders who can help

To meet the expectations of the protesters, Ukraine’s next leaders must pursue with conviction their European aspirations. Only through decisive efforts will Europeans be convinced that Ukraine not only aspires to European economic standards, but also its values of human dignity and rule of law. Yanukovych’s pro-Europe rhetoric was undermined by his anti-European practices at home fueling ambivalence among European Union leaders about whether it is worth the effort to assist Ukraine.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski brilliantly locked France and Germany into owning a resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. Ukraine’s new leaders now need to convince their European counterparts that Ukraine is firmly committed to a European course. If Ukraine’s next government acts decisively, Europeans should then replace ambiguity with clarity, and offer the prospect of membership in the European Union for those nations in Europe’s east who meet the standards.

Ukraine’s next leaders carry an enormous burden. If they fail to deliver a more functional, fair government for their people, the very concept of free market democracy may become discredited among Ukrainians. There would be no better way for the Kremlin to protect its own interests than by showing that Vladimir Putin’s rule provides more stability and prosperity than another risky democratic experiment.

Related Experts: Damon Wilson