Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s regime is warning its citizens that their budding “Snow Revolution” will be as big a mistake as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004. However, while the similarities between these two popular movements are palpable, their differences are essential, so comparing them might help the Russian opposition avoid some mistakes.
Like the Snow Revolution, the Orange Revolution was a broad middle-class reaction against corruption and the absence of the rule of law. In contrast to the Arab Spring, the Orange Revolution was entirely peaceful, as the Snow Revolution has been, and neither was triggered by economic or social crisis. In 2004, the Ukrainian economy grew faster than ever, by 12 percent, and Russia’s GDP increased last year by a respectable 4.3 percent.
However, there are also significant differences. Ukraine has a big ethnic divide between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers. The Ukrainian opposition was well entrenched in the parliament and media, rendering it part of the old system.
The outstanding achievement of the Orange Revolution was political and civil freedom, but its ultimate flaw was an almost complete political stalemate, which led to even worse corruption and authoritarianism. Having been in Ukraine during and after the Orange Revolution, and having just spent time in Moscow, some pitfalls facing the Snow Revolution seem evident to me.
The Orange Revolution was peaceful because a sufficiently large number of people took to the streets. The Russian opposition has already absorbed that insight, minimizing the risk of violence.
However, it might have been a mistake in 2004 to occupy the center of Kiev and pursue persistent demonstrations that forced a quick resolution of the crisis, because it prompted a flawed compromise with the old regime. The sudden relief caused dangerous euphoria and hubris among the Orange revolutionaries.
For this reason, the Russian opposition is probably being sensible by holding large demonstrations from time to time, showing the regime its strength, but not forcing an instant solution. Indeed, the sudden resolution of the Orange Revolution led to the adoption of a dysfunctional constitution with a confusing and unwieldy division of powers. It looked like a trap set by the old regime’s operators.
There is no reason for anybody to repeat such a mistake. A constitution requires serious consideration. The old regime’s adherents can more easily trick the newcomers into dangerous compromises if the process is exceedingly fast.
The other major shortcoming was that the leader of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, turned out to be a feckless and irresponsible president. Initially, he traveled the world for months to celebrate his victory, ignoring the chaos back home. Then he began vetoing virtually all decisions by the government, causing a political stalemate, and, toward the end of his presidency, tacitly joined with the old guard (now back in power) against then-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (whose party, to its credit, had voted against the constitution).
However, while Yushchenko serves as a warning to Russians not to elect an accidental president with excessive powers, an underlying cause of the Orange government’s breakdown was that most of its ministers (Yushchenko appointees) were defectors from the old regime. Most had never opposed its corruption and the prominent businessmen who funded the Orange Revolution expected to profit handsomely from their political investments. As a result, there was no cleansing of the old cadres and corruption declined only temporarily.