It’s a horrible irony even for a country that abounds in horrible ironies. Ukraine has voted, in a presidential election deemed free and fair by foreign observers, for the very person it rose in revolution against just over five years ago.
Back then, for half the country at least Viktor Yanukovych was a symbol of stupidity and brute force, of unwanted Moscow interference and Soviet-style mass fraud. Since then he has hired Western PR experts to clean up his image, but the slogan under which he has been elected this time round is a humble and domestic one enough – A Ukraine for Human Beings.
If we consider the last ninety years (the last nine hundred…), it’s fairly clear that the territory that’s now Ukraine has a pretty poor track record for respecting human beings, and in that light, Yanukovych’s election promise seems, well, unpromising.
Yet more unpromising is the geographical picture of the election results, splitting Ukraine precisely in half – East for Yanukovych, West for his opponent Yulia Tymoshenko. Just the same as five years ago. I think President Yushchenko, elected after the Orange Revolution, failed in many ways, but the failure to even slightly unite his country ranks as his biggest.
So is everything the Orange Revolution stood for truly dead and buried? Before November 2004, everyone in Ukraine knew perfectly well that protesters drummed up to take part in political demonstrations were being paid. Voters were paid, or coerced (like prison and hospital inmates instructed by guards and doctors who to vote for). But it was impossible to get anyone involved to admit this openly, on camera or in writing. It was like the old Soviet jokes, where people picked apart the façade of the system they were living under, but only in the relative privacy of their kitchens, and only under the relatively safe guise of humour.
Post the Orange Revolution, and the protests that people joined genuinely, requiring no payment other than the chance to actually have their true opinions heard – that changed. People were no longer afraid to speak publicly about bribery and coercion. They felt free.
That was a wonderful fact; a real, true sea change.
And yet in Kiev and elsewhere, month after month and year after year, in support of whichever oligarch or party can pay for them, marches and tent camps have gone on, full of people who are being paid to be there. Everyone knows they are being paid. Participants openly tell the TV cameras how much and by whom. The demonstrations are a pretence that no one even pretends to believe anymore.
So what the hell is the point of having them? There is no point, unless to keep a floating population of unemployed and students occupied and away from protesting something they actually do care about and that might actually change things.
The Orange Revolution, I think, did alter an important thing inside people’s heads. It brought confidence and a sense of freedom, of being able to speak out. But that has yet to translate into any new way of running the country. Politicians still fall back on the same old bullshit, voters fall back on the same old weary cynicism. This time around, Ukrainians voted in a free and fair election. These days they joke in public. But that doesn’t make the jokes any less bitter.