Reed Magazine May 2004
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Seeing orange title

 

A Reed associate professor
takes a front-row seat
at the rebirth of democracy
in Ukraine

By Alexandra Hrycak

In November 2004, when Ukraine's government declared the president's handpicked successor, Victor Yanukovych, to be the winner of the country's presidential election, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets in protest, starting what became known as the Orange Revolution.

A tent city sprang up in the center of Kiev. Thousands of peaceful demonstrators blockaded government buildings, facing off heavily armed riot police, and persuading them to refuse to use force against the crowds. Throughout Ukraine, many in the armed forces, the police, and even leadership of the former KGB, pledged publicly to uphold the law and protecte those who had taken to the streets. Election monitoring groups joined supporters of opposition candidate Yushchenko to present evidence of massive fraud. In response, both Ukraine's Parliament and its Supreme Court declared the election invalid and proposed a repeat for December 26.

Late last year, thanks in part to generous support from Reed College, I traveled to Ukraine to serve as an election observer in the country's repeat runoff between presidential candidates Yanukovych and Yushchenko. I found that in much of the country, the Orange Revolution had transformed the mood of the people. There was a jubilance and sense of optimism I had never witnessed in my previous visits to Ukraine. Many people told me that they were no longer afraid to stand up for their rights and that, for the first time since Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union, they felt proud to be Ukrainian. There was also a new belief that citizens could make a difference. Everywhere in Kiev I saw visible signs of the great pride people felt for having participated in the Orange Revolution. Orange ribbons decorated nearly every car. Pedestrians in downtown Kiev wore exuberant expressions as they strolled by in orange coats, orange scarves, or orange ribbons. Ukrainians of every age were wearing orange.

The birth of the Orange Revolution

When I began my doctoral research in Ukraine in 1992, I found that a country once referred to as Europe's breadbasket was beset by a crisis so severe that many Ukrainians I met—even physicians, scientists, and other professionals—were forced to grow much of their own food. Basic necessities such as milk, butter, eggs,,and cooking oil were often unavailable in stores and could only be purchased in farmers' markets for prices far beyond what most Ukrainians could afford. Most people blamed government corruption. When I asked people why they weren't publicly demanding change, they,would shrug their shoulders in utter resignation. "What can we do? Nothing will change until,the generations that grew up under communism die of old age."

Ukraine had become independent from the Soviet Union the year before. It had been the second largest Soviet republic after Russia, with a well-educated populace and highly industrialized economy. Soviet experts believed Ukraine had an excellent chance of becoming the most prosperous post-Soviet country. But instead of prosperity, came years of hyperinflation and virtual economic collapse. Pensions and wages dropped in value and were chronically late. Factories, collective farms, and other state enterprises, ground to a halt. In response to widespread economic insecurity, hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians fled the country, people stopped having children, and there was a significant increase in the death rate. The overall population diminished by more than 6 percent.

In 2001 I returned to conduct new research in Ukraine on women's activism. I was expecting to find the same longstanding political stalemate that pitted western and eastern Ukrainians against one another. Ukrainians overwhelmingly supported independence. But the independence movement's strongest support came from western Ukraine, whose ties had long been to the west, prior to Soviet annexation in World War II.

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Reed Magazine May
2004