Ukrainian politics is influenced by divisions between those who for historical and cultural reasons desire to maximise Ukrainian independence from Russia and others who feel close historic and cultural ties to Russia (including some ethnic Russians). These deep divisions were manifested during the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, both in the polls and in opposing demonstrations, and have marked Ukrainian politics since then, for example in controversy over renewing the contract for a Russian naval base.
After 1991 Ukraine was governed by former Communist leaders who espoused cultural nationalism. Under pressure from opposition parties, parliamentary elections were held in 1994, but the government continued to be dominated by a coalition between Communists and financial oligarchs in a corrupt and semi-authoritarian regime.
Initial protests in the Ukraine focused on corruption and lack of freedom. In 2000 journalists launched the ‘Wave of Freedom’ protests, starting in the western city of Lvov and developing in Kiev. One of its key organizers, investigative journalist Gyorgy Gongadze, was later found murdered, and secret tape recordings suggested President Leonid Kuchma had been complicit. An opposition member of parliament, who released the tapes, demanded the President’s impeachment. Demonstrators representing both right wing and leftist parties marched in Kiev in early February 2001to demand Kuchma’s resignation and set up a protest camp in the centre of the city. The government tore down the camp on March 1 and was able to suppress the relatively small protests in April. Viktor Yushchenko, who had been trying to end corruption and introduce controversial economic reforms, was forced from office, whilst thousands of supporters outside demanded the impeachment of Kuchma.
These issues came to the fore again in November 2004, when Yushchenko, despite an attempt to poison him, stood in the presidential elections against the then prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych (backed by Kuchma who was retiring). In the second round of the elections, Yanukovych was declared the winner, but Yushchenko’s supporters and OSCE observers claimed that the poll was marked by intimidation and ballot rigging. Thousands of demonstrators set up a protest camp in Kiev, which they maintained for days despite freezing temperatures. Other similarities with Georgia (and Serbia) was the role of an active youth group (Pora), symbolic branding of protests (using the colour orange), internal electoral monitoring and foreign funding.
Three western Ukrainian cities, where thousands also took to the streets, declared Yushchenko the winner, despite the official results. However counter-demonstrations in favour of Yanukovych were held in Kiev. After prolonged protests, parliamentary debates and top level negotiations (in which President Putin of Russia, who openly backed Yanukovych, was involved), and a referral to the Supreme Court, a re-run ballot was organized. Yushchenko won, although the voting was close. (Yanukovych refused to concede defeat, claiming evidence of fraud, and took his case unsuccessfully to both the Central Election Committee and the Supreme Court.)
Political divisions in the Ukraine have been demonstrated in subsequent elections, when Yanukovych managed to return to power. So the ‘Orange Revolution’ was never the result of an overwhelming majority rebelling against authoritarianism. The events illustrated the strong involvement (official and semi-official) by both Russia and the USA in funding and advising the opposed parties, media outlets and ‘civil society’ bodies. Some leftist western commentators suggested that the ‘Orange Revolution’ was closer to a western-backed coup. (See for example Jonathan Steele, ‘Ukraine’s postmodern coup d’etat’, Guardian, 26 November 2004, and host of letters representing different viewpoints, 27 November 2004, and follow-up article by Steele replying to critics, 31 December 2004.)