Ukraine After the Orange Revolution

Alexander J. Motyl in Harvard International Review:

Ukraine is supremely fortunate that the Orange revolutionaries did not attempt to introduce fundamental, comprehensive, and rapid change. Had they tried, they would have failed, and Ukraine’s population—saddled with broken institutions and violence-prone elites—would have been far worse off today than it is and would have had far fewer prospects for meaningful reform than it now has. Historical record shows that revolution as a “great leap forward” results in countries falling flat on their face, as China witnessed in the early 1960s. The shock therapy endorsed by Western economists at the Cold War’s close appeared to work in Poland only because Poland had already undergone evolutionary change since 1956. When applied to Russia by Boris Yeltsin’s weak democratic regime, shock therapy failed and instead helped create a super-presidential regime that ultimately made Putin’s return to authoritarianism possible.

There are four reasons that revolutions as massive transformations fail. First, changing a country fundamentally, comprehensively, and rapidly requires enormous financial, coercive, and bureaucratic resources that revolutionaries, as outsiders, usually lack. The only revolutionary transformations that may have come close to achieving their goals have been imposed from above by brutal dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin or by occupying armies ruling over prostrate countries, such as post-World War II Germany or Japan.

Second, massive change always generates massive opposition that requires equally massive applications of force and violence to overcome. Democrats and reformers generally prefer to avoid such violence. However irresistible the temptation, democrats would be well advised to eschew revolutionary rhetoric because they always make bad revolutionaries who cannot deliver. On the other hand, populations should be wary of authoritarians promoting revolution, precisely because they make good revolutionaries and can deliver.

Third, projects of massive change require calculating the consequences of thousands of interrelated minor changes—a task beyond the intellectual or political abilities of any leadership.