BY MATT HUTCHINS
The common perception of Ukraine four years ago was that it was one of the many former Soviet bloc nations racked by corruption and ruled by an oligarchy of billionaires. Today many see it as a democratic nation struggling to escape from the influence of Russia and its state-owned energy giant Gazprom. Although the nation continues to be dominated by corrupt and wealthy interests and the people remain sharply divided in their international allegiances, Ukraine has become an icon of democratic change since the events now known as the Orange Revolution.
During November and December of 2004 hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians protested the falsification of the nation’s presidential election results through round-the-clock protests on the central streets of Kyiv, the nation’s capital. Ukraine’s national political identity was quickly transformed by these non-violent protests which were organized by the “orange” Our Ukraine party. The leader of the party, presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, led the protests with a stoic demeanor despite an attempt on his life by dioxin poisoning which caused him horrible pain and disfigurement. Ultimately the Supreme Court of Ukraine ordered a new round of voting, following which Yushchenko became president.
Director Steve York’s latest documentary, Orange Revolution, provides an inspiring visual record of how the events in Ukraine unfolded during late 2004. York has produced documentaries on topics ranging from American history to the Palestinian West Bank, and he has recently received critical acclaim for his exploration of non-violent political movements in the films A Force More Powerful and Bringing Down a Dictator. York says, “When we saw during the summer of 2004 what was going on [in Ukraine] and we saw the Yushchenko poisoning . . . we began to pay very close attention.” He and his team arrived in time to capture the scene in full detail, and the product is a compelling story of how a national political crisis was resolved through peaceful demonstrations. The Harvard Program On Negotiation presented the film as a part of the PON film series, which has featured both of York’s previous films on non-violent conflict. The version screened is currently being edited for broadcast on PBS later this year.
Orange Revolution begins with a fast-paced journey from the campaign trail to the corrupt election and then follows the daily progress of the mass demonstrations on the streets of Kyiv. York skillfully weaves together the many threads that are critical to understanding the politics and pressures which culminated in the falsification and then reversal of the election results, telling the story with footage of the campaign mixed with interviews of party organizers and journalists. All the players in the drama are shown as they were, and the only voice-overs come from Ukrainians who were first-hand participants or reporters, not the director. In the campaigning before the election, Our Ukraine candidate Viktor Yushchenko is shown eating watermelon with villagers, shaking the hands of supporters, and speaking against the Kuchma regime and its corruption. Yushchenko’s rival, prime minister Viktor Yanukovich, is shown to be the regime’s chosen successor, standing with President Leonid Kuchma and political ally, Vladimir Putin.
The pace and intensity of the film are elevated by lively scenes of demonstrators living in the tent city in Independence Square, Ukrainian pop stars Oleh Skrypka of VV and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk of Okean Elzy singing to huge crowds, and the impassioned Yulia Tymoshchenko, an ally of Yushchenko, inciting the people of Ukraine to take to the streets. Top officials in Yushchenko’s party and the Ukrainian government recount how they mobilized the people, convinced the police to cooperate, and avoided violent clashes with the military and riot police through private negotiations with top military officers. The tension is palpable as the Supreme Court takes testimony while protesters continue to crowd the streets and surround government buildings.
Steve York says, “My job is primarily to document events, and I leave it to others to find the deeper meaning.” It is refreshing that York refrains from assaulting his audience with a message, and instead, he has embedded his theory of non-violent social movements in a factual presentation of the events. After the screening, York explained that he believes all successful non-violent movements are characterized by three common elements: unity, organization, and non-violent discipline. Orange Revolution demonstrates that the success of the movement depended on popular disgust with the corruption of the ruling Kuchma government, careful logistical planning in advance by the Yushchenko campaign, and the insistence among all protest organizers that there be no violence. Once the people were mobilized, the Yushchenko camp used political authority to ensure that Kuchma couldn’t launch a violent attack without signing a written order. Faced with the full responsibility for their actions, Kuchma and Yanukovich balked, and the negotiations which resulted provided the basis for subsequent electoral reforms and constitutional reduction of the president’s powers.
The victory of Viktor Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine party was hailed worldwide as a victory for democracy and a step toward the West, but the three years since have seen the nation undergo chaotic political reversals along the same lines as were drawn during the Orange Revolution. Some have criticized the movement as a failure, as the pro-Russian Party of the Regions and its leader, Viktor Yanukovich, have at times held a coalition in the parliament. York responds, “The Orange Revolution should not be criticized for failure to achieve that which was not its goal.” The film’s final scene, workers taking out the trash in Independence Square, emphasizes that the purpose of the movement was the narrow one of reversing election fraud and removing a corrupt president.
Although the nation continues to struggle with endemic corruption – the parliament recently called for snap elections for the Mayor of Kyiv following accusations he was involved in $3 billion in corrupt land deals – the country has taken significant steps forward in the development of democratic governance. York points to four enduring legacies of the Orange Revolution: creation of a free press, election reforms which have provided three fair elections, enactment of constitutional reforms which created a healthier balance between the executive and legislative branches, and the awakening of a national political identity. As the younger generation comes of age, that spark of a democratic consciousness is creating a Ukraine which is more closely tied to the Orange Revolution than its history as a Soviet Republic. Whether that results in alignment toward the East or West remains the free choice of the people.
Rating: * * * 1/2