TCS Daily

You Say You Wanna (Velvet) Revolution!?

By Melana Zyla Vickers - November 30, 2004 12:00 AM

A week has passed since a Moscow-backed, ruling party candidate was declared victor in fraudulent presidential elections in Ukraine, sending tens of thousands of protesters into the frozen streets of the ex-Soviet nation's capital.

The protesters remain, their ranks enriched daily with defectors from the government: the Ukrainian parliament, dissenting members of the election commission that announced the discredited result, hundreds of members of the Ukrainian foreign service, a state-controlled television network, and, critically, top officers of the army and various groups of police and other state-security personnel, have switched sides in the last few days. As importantly, the opposition has attracted the backing of Secretary of State Colin Powell and a number of European leaders.

Can the opposition keep up the momentum and win?

  • The popular, post-Communist revolution in Georgia took 21 days, beginning with fraudulent parliamentary elections, followed by mass protests, and culminating with President Edouard Shevardnadze stepping down.

  • The popular, post-Communist revolution in Serbia took 17 days, beginning with the fraudulent presidential election in which Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic claimed victory, followed by mass protests, and ending with Milosevic stepping down on October 5, 2000. Of course, this culmination was preceded and encouraged by the massive pounding of Milosevic-led Serbia by U.S.-led forces.

  • The popular Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia took 24 days, from the clash of student pro-democracy protesters on Prague's main square on Nov. 17, 1989, through the formation of the Civic Forum political movement and mass public protests, to the resignation of Communist President Gustav Husak on Dec.10.

Whether it's 17 days long, 24, or slightly more, the clock for Ukraine is ticking. Western analysts are looking to a Ukrainian Supreme Court decision, hearings for which began Monday, for signs of where things are headed. If the court concludes that the election commission was wrong to declare ruling-party candidate Viktor Yanukovich the winner, given the widespread election fraud denounced by international observers, then opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko could gain advantage -- possibly a new round of balloting, or the trigger needed to get the ruling party to step down.

But that's a big if. It's just as conceivable that the court's lifetime-appointed, Communist-era judges will stretch out their deliberations over weeks and months, buying time for the ruling party to consolidate its rump government and freeze the popular revolution. Or that the court will decide in Yanukovich's favor, lending a false veneer of legal legitimacy to an illegitimate electoral process. Opposition candidate Yushchenko knows this full well, and has downplayed the significance of the upcoming ruling, pushing instead for a new election. For the same reason, the ruling party has played the court ruling up.

The lessons of Georgia, Serbia, Central Europe and elsewhere show that there are other critical steps needed in order for Ukraine's velvet revolution to succeed. The more that are taken, the better.

Ukraine's ruling party and its backer the Russian president need a way out of their corner. The U.S. can help here. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials should be persuading Vladimir Putin that his own rather marginal reputation as a democrat is harmed by association with the Yanukovich election-stealing camp. Putin needs to be pressed to dump his Ukrainian friend, current president Leonid Kuchma, who has none of the domestic popularity, perceived record of fighting corruption, or electoral semi-legitimacy that Putin himself has. European mediators' proposal Friday for a re-vote may be a sign that just such a way out is being carved for Russia: A government spokesman in Moscow quickly announced Russia's support for the do-over. As long as any new election were held before the end of the year -- before the rich and powerful Yanukhovich camp had time to arrange to steal it, that is -- it could indeed pave the way for a clean Yushchenko win and a way for Ukraine's ruling party and Russia to bow off the stage. Additionally, the U.S. could assure Putin that a Ukraine under Yushchenko would not be anti-Russian; it can't be, the countries are geographically joined at then hip. The U.S. officials might also point out that Washington, too, has been in the position of dumping leaders it once backed -- Marcos in the Philippines, for instance -- and that all can end well after such a reversal of loyalties. If Putin can't be persuaded, he should be pushed, with threats to his country's foreign direct investment and other goodies if he continues to meddle imperialistically in Ukraine's internal affairs.

Ukraine's security forces -- the military, the police, the interior ministry -- need to demonstrate they'll refuse to follow orders that harm the Ukrainian people. Already, several top Army generals, whole police academies, and top leaders of the Ukrainian equivalent of the FBI have broken rank with the ruling party and sided with the Constitution and the opposition. This signals that the security forces may indeed refuse orders against the people when and if such orders come. In Georgia, when the security forces refused Shevardnadze's order to crush protests, Shevardnadze finally understood that les jeux sont faits.

Ukraine's state-controlled media needs to break away from the ruling party. Only that way can citizens outside the capital be mobilized for the opposition, because they'll see that the revolution is peaceful and pro-democratic, not violent and bent on destruction as the TV propaganda they're being fed now suggests. Already, one state station has rebelled. The situation is a reminder of how important it would be for the U.S. to maintain VOA and Radio Liberty programming for the ex-Soviet region.

Other institutions of government need to break away from ruling-party control. They need to represent the virtues of democratic, civil society and reject ruling-party authoritarian control. Such institutions include the Supreme Court, the election commission that announced the discredited election results, and city and regional governments. Already, five of 15 members of the electoral commission have either opposed giving the election to Yanukhovich or publicly reversed their earlier pro-Yanukhovich stand. If another two commission members reverse themselves, the election results will become invalid.

Distinct elements of society -- students, unions, pensioners, churches -- need to bolster the opposition. Already, Ukrainian students are on the opposition side, in a popular wave reminiscent of Georgia and Serbia. But unions, long dependent on the ruling party for financial support, are divided. Worse, managers from a few key industries in Ukraine's far east are the backbone of the pro-Yanukhovich camp, a camp that's now roiling the waters by threatening a separatist vote in the event of an opposition victory. Nationally, the unions' continuing ambivalence is part of what keeps the opposition's call for a nationwide general strike from succeeding. If major labor movements came on side, the country could indeed become strike-paralyzed. Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, in Ukraine on Friday, could give Yushchenko great assistance here.

Ukraine's pro-democracy allies in the West need to step up their pressure, both publicly and behind the scenes. Publicly, the opposition forces need to hear continuous encouragement and support that they are right and that fairness and democracy will prevail. Privately, the ruling forces need to be muscled, or pushed, or escorted gently from power. Georgia's Shevardnadze may not have stepped down as readily if he didn't have the United States' Jim Baker whispering that he'd be able to save face, and Germany offering him asylum. In South Africa, apartheid-era leader Frederik Willem de Klerk left the prime ministership and was lauded with a Nobel Peace Prize for allowing a new country to be born. If Ukraine's current president Leonid Kuchma had a Shevardnadze-type path paved for him, he and his buddy Yanukhovich might find it easier to leave power. Among the methods of pressure might be to remind Kuchma and Yanukhovich of the grisly exit that faced Romania's clinging communist ruler Nicolae Ceaucescu. (Will it be a Georgian head-bow or a Romanian bullet to the head, gentlemen?)

To be sure, these milestones aren't a checklist. Much of what happens in a revolution is psychological -- the tipping point will come when the ruling party blinks and when the opposition's pressure reaches a boiling point, and it's impossible to say when that will be. But several of these milestones must nonetheless be crossed if a new and democratic Ukraine is to emerge from the seemingly necessary crucible of popular, post-Communist revolution, and finish the process that started with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Melana Zyla Vickers is a columnist for She campaigned in Kiev for the Ukrainian secession from the Soviet Union in 1991, and writes regularly on Eastern European issues.


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