The secret to success in Ukraine
The International Herald Tribune
Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall
December 29, 2004
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On Sunday Ukrainians voted in the first truly fair election in their lifetimes. That happened only because millions of Ukrainians had engaged in a massive nonviolent campaign to throw out a stolen election. But instead of celebrating these events, many pundits and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have been debating the propriety of U.S. and European funding for democracy-building in Ukraine.
That debate misses the reality of how the Orange Revolution succeeded. Like all victories of people power in the past 25 years, it was achieved, not by foreign assistance, but by the indigenous force of ordinary citizens applying their own strategy to challenge autocratic power.
Using nonviolent weapons such as strikes, boycotts and sit-ins, earlier civilian-based movements in the Philippines, South Africa and Chile, as well as Eastern Europe, overturned stolen elections or forced dictators to resign.
Following in their footsteps, the Ukrainian opposition unified behind an easily communicated goal, planned a series of events that mobilized diverse people from all over the country, adjusted tactics to defend against the regime's behavior and, most of all, remained nonviolent. Regimes fall when their defenders defect, but you cannot co-opt those you're shooting at.
All this was necessary, but not sufficient. The break point was reached because the people decided that enough was enough. The Orange Revolution was an existential response to the crooked oligarchy and rigged politics orchestrated by president Leonid Kuchma, who ignored political rights and tyrannized independent media.
In 2000, for example, Heorhiy Gongadze, a journalist, was kidnapped and beheaded. Three years later, a former militia officer, Ihor Honcharov, testified that the president knew that a death squad had murdered Gongadze. Then Honcharov died in police custody.
But repression can boomerang. After the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned, "that really seemed to galvanize and radicalize his agenda," said Kataryna Wolczuk, a lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the University of Birmingham in England.
Activists in the ranks faced intimidation too. Opposition members' homes were raided. The authorities claimed, preposterously, that they had found explosives at offices of a nonviolent student group. Police scattered spikes on highways to block protesters.
But Ukrainians kept coming, their fervor heightened by the vote tampering. International monitors found blocking of opposition poll workers and bogus absentee ballots. Bernard Bot, the Dutch foreign minister, whose country holds the presidency of the European Union said, "We don't accept these results. We think they are fraudulent."
On the first day of demonstrations, 150,000 protesters congregated in Kiev; in three days their number had doubled; in a few more, they had doubled again. More than 200,000 gathered in Lviv; 50,000 in Ivano-Frankivsk; and 30,000 in Kharkov.
To see in these numbers the phantom of foreign interference is an insult to the ordinary wage earners and students who stood on freezing streets week after week. Could George Soros's money or American consultants give three-quarters of a million Ukrainians the courage to seize their capital city and refuse to yield?
That refusal had been primed by months of organizing and training — driven mainly by the Ukrainian groups Project Znayu ("Project I Know"), focused on voter education and turnout, and Pora ("It's Time"), which prepared for a showdown in case of election fraud.
The regime fell back on threats. A "gross violation of the law," Kuchma called the blockades. "Democratic countries have learned to take harsh measures," he warned — perhaps confusing the history of peaceful marches on Washington with bloody crackdowns in places like Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Kuchma was not the only one confused. When foreign diplomats descended on Kiev, Western television anchors started framing the crisis in terms of East-West relations, as if the interests of Ukrainians should not be decisive.
But that was the premise of Western assistance — to ensure the openness of the electoral process, not the outcome it might produce. The West had confidence in what the Ukrainians would do, if they had a fair chance to do it.
Conspiracy theorists singled out training by veterans of Otpor, a Serbian student group that had helped topple Slobodan Milosevic. While they educated Ukrainians in nonviolent tactics, "it is not true that we are exporters of revolution," said Danijela Nenadic of the Center for Nonviolent Resistance in Belgrade. "There is no universal concept to fight authoritarianism. You have to have your own strategy."
So people power is not imported, it's homegrown. External aid can help, but it's neither necessary nor sufficient. With unity, planning and nonviolent discipline all harnessed to the determination of people to be free, oppression can be defeated.
There was no red, white and blue in the Orange Revolution. It had only one predicate: the purpose and passion of the Ukrainian people themselves.
Peter Ackerman is chairman of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Boston. Jack DuVall is the co-author of "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict."
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