Ukraine: The rusting of the orange revolution

A year ago, twelve months after former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnaze was overthrown in the so-called ‘rose revolution’, Victor Yushenko came to power as the president of Ukraine after the ‘orange revolution’.

When hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Kiev, Ukraine, a year ago, the mass media greeted the ‘orange revolution’. Optimistic headlines proclaimed the end of corrupt rule, and a new era of democracy, as a series of other ‘revolutions’ followed. In reality, little changed, except the faces at the top. Rob Jones reports.

The rusting of the orange revolution

In March this year, president Askar Akayev of Kirghizia was overthrown in the ‘tulip revolution’. Hardly is there now a state in the former Soviet bloc in which the opposition has not talked about a coloured revolution of its own – chestnut shaded in Moldova, watermelon flavoured in Azerbaijan and, with what the Russian regime calls the ‘orange plague’ spreading, even the cedar revolution in the Lebanon.

Whatever the shade, however, it has not taken long for the fade to set in. On the anniversary of the orange demonstrations in Kiev, protesters talk of the ‘revolution of fraudulent hopes’. The growing disillusionment followed from the bitter and open conflict that broke out at the end of September between Yushenko and Yulia Timoshenko, his prime minister.

Timoshenko was sacked and has gone into open opposition after a very public row within the government over corruption and the reprivatisation of the Nikopolskii steelworks. Despite introducing a number of populist measures in the immediate aftermath of the orange protests, living standards have not improved. Even a large pension increase in the spring backfired because it was almost immediately absorbed by inflation, leaving those who got the rise no better off and the rest worse off. The high economic growth rate of over 12% in 2004 has dropped dramatically to about 3% this year.

The Ukrainian press is full of stories of how Yushenko’s son likes to drive expensive cars and how government ministers have suddenly acquired expensive yachts. Timoshenko with her $2,000 handbags is no better. Now the SBU, Ukraine’s successor to the KGB, has announced a special commission to investigate corruption in upper government circles.

This open conflict within the ruling elite, however, is largely about dividing the spoils of privatised industry, although it is worsened by the deal that was made in December 2004 by outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, and Yushenko to reduce presidential powers and increase those of the parliament. These changes come into force early next year, and the different wings are lining up to strengthen their positions in parliament which, in future will elect the president.

In what some call a counter-revolution, Yushenko made a pact with the pro-Yanukovich deputies to ensure that his replacement for Timoshenko was approved by parliament. This reflects the cynical nature of Ukrainian politicians. After all, only a year ago, Yushenko turned Victor Yanukovich into the personification of all that was corrupt and undemocratic in Ukraine. But Yanukovich is also the foremost representative of Russian interests, and the coming together of the two Victors reflects the realisation that, despite the illusions propagated by the leaders of the orange revolution, the country will not quickly be welcomed into the EU.

The lack of meaningful reforms, corruption allegations, the slowdown in the economy and splits in his government have led to Yushenko’s popularity plummeting. An opinion poll in November showed only 14% of the population support him, a drop from 47% in February; 58% no longer believe in the promises of the orange revolution, and 60% believe the country is on the wrong path. Pro-Yanukovich parties are currently heading the polls in the run-up to next March’s parliamentary elections. Yushenko’s Faustian pact with Kuchma last December could find him ousted by the new parliament without having served two years of his presidency.

In Georgia, disappointment with Mikhail Saakashvili is growing. There has been little reduction in corruption levels, unemployment is still high, poverty overwhelming. According to Amnesty International, two years after the revolution, Georgian police use electric shocks, cigarette and candle burns, and place gun barrels in detainees’ mouths to torture prisoners. Such methods are becoming more widespread.

But perhaps most importantly, Saakashvili has proved incapable of solving the division of Georgia caused by the refusal of the Russian-speaking regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to accept central rule. The sensitivity of the question was graphically demonstrated when UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, paid a flying visit to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on his way back from Pakistan. Saakashvili, after announcing he would not allow the republics to act outside of central control, urged the UN to take a more active role in defending the territorial integrity of Georgia. Making general statements about the UN’s commitment to ensure both sides observe human rights, Annan excused himself from the planned lunch and rushed back to the airport.

The bazaar economy

Maybe the most bitter disillusionment is found in Kirghizia. One driver graphically complained: “There’s no future in Kirghizia. We threw that lot out, but they had already robbed all they needed for themselves and their relatives. Now this new lot is starting the thieving all over again!” He repeated what is frequently heard: “I want to live in Kazakhstan! Living is better there, there’s more money and stability. I’m afraid of war here!”

The comic Ali G has created a furor in Kazakhstan with his somewhat crude depiction of Kazakh life. It says much that in Kirghizia, many look on their northern neighbour as a heaven. Kirghizia has been ravaged by neo-liberalism since the early 1990s and the new government has not changed course. In most towns, industry has all but disappeared. Wage levels of those in work are unbelievable. According to official statistics, the average wage is 1,300 som a month (€26). But this figure includes the wages of the elite. The official minimum wage is 200 som a month (€4). Fully-trained school teachers get a basic wage of just 300 som (€6). The little industry that does exist is in a precarious state. Indicative is the fact that the local population has been blockading the roads to the main gold mine after a cyanide spill polluted their river. These factors help to explain why over a quarter of the republic’s population has decided to travel abroad to Kazakhstan or Russia to find work.

Local people depict the economy not as ‘market’ but as ‘bazaar’. Most people earn their living either by trading goods from nearby China, or by subsistence farming in the mountainous rural areas. Ethnic tensions are high as many of the more successful traders are ethnic Russians who can travel freely to Russia, whilst the numerous Chinese traders are treated as second-class citizens. In the south, the existence of large Tajik, Uighur and Uzbek populations raise the tension further. These factors are compounded by divisive clan interests between northern and southern Kirghizia.

Kurmanbek Bakiev, who took over after Akayev fled the country, represents both the southern clans and also the rich business elite. In the early 1990s, he headed the republican privatisation committee and, in 2000, was premier until he was sacked by Akayev after riots broke out in the south over the transfer of a large tract of land to China. Apart from his own personal enrichment, Bakiev gives the impression of not having a clear programme to rule the country. Pressurised by the Communist Party, he has accepted that natural resources should be state owned. There is, however, no chance of this being implemented.

Unexpectedly sucked into the political vacuum left by the tulip revolution, Bakiev found himself in power. But by June, opposition protesters around Felix Kulov were storming the parliament in what some have called an attempted coup aimed at bringing Akayev back to power. In the middle of November, a further shooting battle took place near the parliament.

Concerned he would lose power in July’s presidential election, Bakiev did a deal with his main opponent Kulov, who is also from the tulip camp. They ran as a ‘tandem’ with the latter promised the prime minister’s post. Kulov, a northerner formerly head the republic’s secret police, was once Akayev’s loyal lieutenant until imprisoned on charges of corruption and the misuse of power.

Although having a more clearly defined neo-liberal programme than Bakiev, Kulov is significantly more popular and is proving hard to control. Many now think he has made common ground with Akayev and his former supporters. It is certainly true that a large number of the leading members of the former regime once again hold positions of power. The new authorities are petrified that protests will grow out of control. The country’s chief justice complained: “The wave of illegal demonstrations and protest acts, often accompanied by mass disorder, looting and violence are threatening to turn into a steadily growing process of illegal behaviour representing a serious threat to the state and social order”. Indeed, in the past weeks, there have been over 2,000 protests meetings throughout the country.

Democracy & oil

A year ago, the imperialist powers were gloating at the apparently unstoppable orange steamroller crushing anyone who stood up to Western interests. Kirghizia served as a certain check on their jubilations, if for no other reason than that the overthrow of Akayev left them with Bakiev, who the West was not sure would be better. After all, Akayev had been the most pro-Western of the former Soviet leaders, with the possible exception of Boris Yeltsin. His relations with the West cooled not for ideological reasons, but because he was out of step with the mood of the population of Kirghizia, inclined to be pro-Russian.

After the massacre in July in Andizhan, Uzbekistan, however, the Uzbek regime has broken sharply with the West, asking the US to evacuate its airfields. The Shanghai Association, uniting China, Russia and the Central Asian states, now demands that the US leaves all airbases in the region within six months. But for now, Kirghizia still allows its airbases to be used. Indeed, flying into Bishkek airport, you find the runway lined with a dozen or so US mid-air fuel tankers and a couple of huge black painted Galaxy transport aircraft.

This experience, in addition to the unwillingness to provoke instability in countries in which the ruling elites have proved to be extremely pragmatic in their relations with imperialism, has made the West much more circumspect about intervening, either in Azerbaijan’s recent parliamentary election or in December’s vote in Kazakhstan. Not surprisingly, both countries are key oil producers.

For the last decade, US imperialism has firmly allied itself with, firstly president Geidar Aliyev, then his son, Ilham, who took over when his father died. This relationship paid fruit with this year’s opening of the new pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey. Up to 1% of the world’s oil supply will flow along this route, avoiding Russia and undermining Russian interests in the Caucasus. US hypocrisy is clear for all to see. Despite claiming to spread democracy throughout the world, when its interests are defended by a dictatorial regime in an oil producing country, the US puts oil ahead of democracy. The election in 2003, which saw Ilham Aliyev succeed his father, can only be described as fraudulent. It was accompanied by ballot rigging, monopoly access for Aliyev to the mass media and the brutal clubbing of thousands of opposition demonstrators.

But the huge oil wealth, which has led to growth rates of 13% and 14% in the past two years, does not filter down to the population. Billions of dollars go into the coffers of the multinationals whilst most of the rest ends up in the pockets of the corrupt ruling elite. The average wage of the rest of the population is just €40 a month.

In Azerbaijan, the opposition has been seriously disappointed by the lack of support from the so-called disciples of democracy in the White House and EU. It is true that the West did waver, worried that if Aliyev remained in power, a social explosion or a new ethnic conflict (mirroring the Nagorno Karabakh conflict) could explode. After the rose and orange revolutions it appeared for a while that the West would back the watermelon opposition. But opposition hopes were dashed in November’s parliamentary elections. These were no freer than previous elections, with widespread fraud and the beating up of opposition demonstrators. However, the West clearly decided it was better to stick with the devil they knew, giving little or no support to the opposition. Needless to say, Aliyev secured a firm majority, leaving the opposition bitterly complaining about democracy having been sold for oil. The US was amongst the very first to congratulate him.

In Kazakhstan, where parliamentary elections are due on 4 December, Western hypocrisy is no less. The neo-liberal ‘democratic’ opposition and the Communist Party have formed, at a meeting in London, an anti-Nazarbayev bloc: ‘For a Just Kazakhstan’. The events in Kirghizia boosted hopes of a replay in Alma-Ata. The regime is worried, even broadcasting a daily TV programme outlining the ‘failures of the orange plague’. Repression has stepped up with opposition papers (including that of the CWI) being arrested, opposition candidates ruled out of the election and a leading opposition activist being shot dead.

Western powers do not want an unstable Kazakhstan. Since September, US Congressmen, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice have all paid visits to president Nursultan Nazarbayev at various times. Rice spoke warmly about “Kazakhstan being the motor for economic growth in Central Asia”. When challenged at a press conference about the lack of democratic elections, about political prisoners and the unprecedented pre-election repression, Rice abstractly commented that if the authorities were to respect democracy they would liberate the creative energy of the people. This led an opposition paper to talk again of “democracy being sold out to oil”.

West funding NGOs

Support for the orange revolution has certainly waned throughout the region. People see few benefits and feel the West is very selective about supporting democracy. The conflicts within the ruling elites are raising ethnic tensions in the region. Saakashvili provokes the breakaway republics in Georgia by sending tanks to police the borders. The perceived danger of a return of the northern clans to power through the back door in Kirghizia will only heighten tensions in the even more impoverished south. Tensions are running very high as the Ukrainian government is shutting down Russian-speaking schools on the overwhelmingly Russian Crimean peninsular.

The multi-coloured revolutions have demonstrated dramatically both the confusion in the region and also the tragic lack of a political force capable of mobilising the undoubted discontent of the masses to end the horrors of capitalist rule.

In a distorted form, the protests reflect a revolutionary striving by the masses to force change. Amongst the protesters in Kiev last December were those complaining at the fraudulent elections, at corruption, at the economic conditions or just ‘because we cannot live like this anymore’. That so many are disappointed is largely because there has been no working class alternative offered.

The region’s ‘communist’ parties, dominated as they are by a desire to return to the stability of Soviet times, have been incapable of leading economic and democratic struggles. Instead, they have almost all without exception provided a cloak for the neo-liberal leaders of the orange movements. In Ukraine, the Communist and Socialist parties formed a bloc with Yushenko rather than offer an independent class alternative. In Kirghizia, the two communist parties joined with some smaller petit-bourgeois parties in the ‘Akayev Resign Movement’. In Kazakhstan, the CP has submerged itself so deeply in the bourgeois opposition ‘For a Just Kazakhstan’ it has practically disappeared.

This absence of a clear left alternative allows the West to ferment ‘revolution’ by financing non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Beginning with Otpor in Serbia, each revolution has seen the involvement of Western-financed youth groups. In Ukraine, Pora provided the backbone to the movement. But as one of the activists from the Kyrgyz ‘Birge’ group explained, their organisation did not understand what was happening and went into crisis when they saw the rioting and looting in Bishkek and the victory of Bakiev and Kulov. While most of these groups have been abandoned by their sponsors, the West is still pouring large sums into the region to try and bolster its position. One US group is pouring $3 million just to finance NGOs in the south of Kirghizia. The people who work in these groups (in Kirghizia there are over 6,000 NGOs) begin to live in a world isolated from the reality of life on a few euros a month experienced by the rest of the population.

However, the influx of Western-financed NGOs, in many ways echoing how CIA fronts influenced the underground socialist parties in Europe and Latin America in the 1970s, will not prevent social protests. President Vladimir Putin in Russia has now banned the financing of NGOs by Western bodies in an attempt to avoid the ‘orange plague’. But all this will do is lessen the influence of the NGOs on movements that will inevitably spring up, and lessen their ability to divert people from the real struggle.

What is really required is a mass working-class, socialist alternative which can offer solutions to ethnic and clan divisions, end the rule of the oligarchs, struggle for genuine democracy and lead the discontented mass of workers and youth in a struggle for a genuine socialist society.

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December 2005