Ukraine: Protests and Memories of the Orange Revolution

As noted in a November 18 blog post, popular support is growing in Ukraine for integration with Europe and for an association agreement. That agreement lays out a road-map for drawing closer to the European Union and contains a free trade arrangement. On November 21, President Yanukovych’s cabinet announced that it would “suspend” preparations for signing the association agreement. While EU leaders have taken pains to make clear that the door remains open, Mr. Yanukovych appears set to miss the opportunity to sign the agreement at a November 28-29 summit with EU leaders in Vilnius. He also appears set to lose the increasingly pro-Europe Ukrainian public.

Within hours of the cabinet announcement, several thousand people gathered in Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in the center of Kyiv to protest the decision. Some of the protestors remained, setting the stage for a mass demonstration on Sunday, November 24, when Ukrainians turned out in force. Citizens wearing the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian and European Union flags marched in the cold holding signs that read “We are Ukrainians, we are Europeans” and “Ukraine = EU.”

In Kyiv, estimates put the number of protestors at 100,000 — making it the largest demonstration in Ukraine since hundreds of thousands took to the streets during the Orange Revolution in late 2004. In Lviv, an estimated 30,000 marched in support of integration with Europe. Since then large numbers of students in both Kyiv and Lviv have gone on strike. Protests continue in Kyiv and other cities, and many have pledged to continue until the end of the Vilnius summit.

The demonstrations undoubtedly bring back bitter memories for Mr. Yanukovych. After all, the Orange Revolution was directed against him, triggered by the overt ballot fraud that attempted to award him the presidential election over Viktor Yushchenko. The weeks-long protest resulted in a nullification of the stolen results and a new ballot — which Mr. Yushchenko won handily — in what domestic and international observers pronounced to be a free and fair process.

Indeed, Mr. Yanukovych remembers what happened. Following his 2010 election as president, this time in a free and fair election, he had changes made to Independence Square, which had served as the heart of the Orange Revolution. The installation of singing fountains and other accoutrements make it harder for the square to function well as a center of protest — harder, but not impossible.

The staying power of the demonstrators remains to be seen. The Orange Revolution taught Ukrainians that they could exercise real political power, even in the face of large-scale fraud and corruption. Unfortunately, following the revolution’s successful conclusion and the new election, President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko failed to effect major economic reforms and fell into a destructive personal feud, frittering away the opportunity that they had been given. The Orange government’s failure to deliver real change left Ukrainians disillusioned and cynical about politics.

That’s why the size of Sunday’s protest is notable. Also notable in many protest speeches is praise that these “EuroMaidan” protests are not connected to party politics and not led by major political party figures — though the politicians certainly are taking part. The protests appear driven by a desire for the better economic and political future that many Ukrainians feel would come with European integration. That sentiment is largely driven by youth, who make up a large segment of the protestors. As noted in the November 18 blog post, support for joining the European Union is much higher in the 18-29 age bracket than in any other.

During their childhood, Ukraine’s students witnessed the failure of politician-driven initiatives and seem to have chosen to look to ideas — in this case the European idea — for hope and inspiration. They are not willing to be charmed by politicians; as students rallied on Tuesday in Kyiv’s Shevchenko Park, opposition leader (and heavy-weight boxing champion) Vitali Klychko arrived to address them. He reportedly received “a cold shower” from the students. They chanted, “No politics,” and Mr. Klychko wished them luck and departed.

For the protests to achieve their aim, it will take more than students with luck. But the demonstrations show that, despite the democratic regression that has taken place in Ukraine over the past four years, real politics continue, and ordinary citizens have a voice. When Mr. Yanukovych travels to Vilnius for the summit with EU leaders — his office confirmed on Monday that he still plans to go — he will have one eye fixed back on what’s happening on the streets of Kyiv.