What the Orange Revolution Tells Us About the Soviet Union’s Successors

Alex Motyl looks at Ukraine’s political virtues.

Although the prevailing mood in Ukraine almost two years after the orange revolution is one of profound disappointment, Ukraine is a far different, and better, country today. It has opened itself to the world. It is democratic and free, even if chaotically so. Civil society and the media are robust, open debate is the norm, foreign direct investment has boomed, and the rule of law has improved. Ukraine remains poor and corrupt, but, unlike Belarus and Russia, it is anything but an authoritarian state with a dictatorial leader and a passive population.

How could a democratic breakthrough take place in a country known for systemic stasis and government deadlock? Paradoxically, the “stagnation” of the 1990s made the orange revolution possible. It takes time for institutions – or valued rules of the game – to take hold. They “stick” only after people use them repeatedly and come to view them as effective, valuable, and “natural”. Since such rule-based behaviour evolves slowly, almost invisibly, many observers failed to see that Ukraine had become transformed since independence in 1991, when it was a post-totalitarian and post-imperial “space” without the institutions of a state, the rule of law, democracy, a market, and civil society.