Orange Revolution in Ukraine: Inspiration of Disillusionment?


The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was not just a series of protests and mass non-violent actions in the fall and winter of 2004-2005. It was an event that inspired people, especially young to believe in their own agency, their own ability to influence government and change the country for the best. How does Ukrainian youth see the Orange Revolution and democracy now, after seven turbulent years and change of the government? Are young people still active in civic society and ready to build democracy in Ukraine? This paper analyzes the inspirations and tactics of youth during the Orange Revolution as well as views on the Orange Revolution and readiness to protests in 2010-2011. The study is based on my current research in Ukraine:1 58 interviews with representatives of Ukrainian intellectual and political elites that, among other questions, explore the legacy of the Orange Revolution. In addition, I use statistical data of the Institute of Sociology (Ukrainian Academy of Science) and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation (Kiev). The paper shows that despite the inspirations of the Orange Revolution, its failure to bring a positive change to the daily lives of Ukrainians led to disappointment among youth, disillusionment in their role in society, and low levels of civic engagement.

The Orange Revolution resulted from protests against massive fraud during the presidential elections in November 2004. The electoral commission announced the victory of Yanukovych, supported by the outgoing President Kuchma, ahead of Western-leaning opposition leader Yushchenko by 3%.  Yet, numerous Yushchenko supporters from the entire country gathered at Kiev’s Independence Square to demand his recognition as the winner. Around 500,000 protesters were wearing orange or carrying orange flags representing the color of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party. Six days of peaceful protest eventually forced the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) to annul the election results. On December 3, 2004, Ukraine’s Supreme Court revoked the election results due to the scale of electoral fraud, announcing a re-run on December 26, 2004. On January 10, 2005 the election commission officially declared Yushchenko as the winner of the presidential election with the final results of 51.99% of the total vote for Yushchenko and 44.20% of the total vote for Yanukovych. On January 23, 2005, President Yushchenko’s official inauguration ceremony at the Verkhovna Rada was followed by a public inauguration at Independence Square in front of hundreds of thousands of triumphant supporters.

Young people were a significant part of protesters. Some of them were trained by Ukrainian dissidents, experts on the 2000 revolution in Serbia, and representatives of Western pro-democratic institutions. The young volunteers were entertained with rock music concerts and puppet shows, provided with tents, free food, and hot drinks—the latter were very important due to freezing temperatures. Organizing the gathering of a significant part of young people was made possible thanks to new media technologies—in particular text messaging.2 Thanks to mobile phone technology students were able to disseminate information quickly, such as inviting their friends to Independence Square, causing a snowball effect. According to many experts, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was the second democratic uprising after the Philippines in 2001, which was empowered by cellular technologies.

Several questions nonetheless remain with regards to the events. What were the motives of the Orange Revolution? Why people were ready to stay days and nights on the streets during very cold weather? The results of the polls by the Institute of Sociology shows that the major motivations were: protest against the government (41.9%), hope to improve personal economic position (30.4%), aversion to one of the presidential candidates (24.7%), concerns about the future (21.7%), and protest against injustice (20.1%).3 According to a poll taken just after the revolution, beliefs in a positive perspective among respondents grew up from 5.3% in 2003 to 28.1% in 2005 and the feeling of freedom increased from 4.7% in 2003 to 16.8% in 2005; the feeling of devastation decreased from 43.4% in 2003 to 20.1% in 2005 and the feeling of disorder declined from 43.4% in 2003 to 20.1% in 2005.4 The age difference was not significant in this study: young people shared similar views with older generations.

In my interviews, the majority of respondents, independent of their political affiliation and preferences, said that the Orange Revolution was a symbolic event in Ukrainian history. It illustrated the ability of people to express and defend their political will and to impact the history of their country. The emotional connection and mutual support among protestor were very high, and the feeling of a common civic identity was extremely salient. But, unfortunately, the political and social turmoil caused by the conflicts among Orange Revolution leaders, a constant reshuffling of the government, and rapid economic decline led to a decreasing support of the Orange Revolution among citizens. Around 38% of the respondents stated that President Yushchenko—despite his intentions to transform existing post-soviet concepts of society as well as historic myths—acted only sporadically, and without any dialogue or pulse to society. Even though they praised President Yushchenko for the promotion of the concept of Golodomor (famine)—which helped foster an important historic self-perception for Ukrainians, namely that of institutionalized genocide—they believed that he did not do enough to establish this idea among all regions of Ukraine. They stressed that, instead of developing a systemic approach that could challenge the beliefs and perceptions of Ukrainians, he acted impulsively, sometimes even provoking resistance from within the population. The idea the president did not carry out a holistic approach of Ukrainian history was expressed by 24% of the respondents, emphasizing that the president promoted an image of history that only included parts of Ukrainian society, and therefore fueling sociopolitical cleavages. They stated that his policies  (establismnets of national holidays, memorials, etc) on famine and Ukrainian fighters for independence during 1930-1940s were perceived as an insult by many people, and as an attempt to demonize the country that won the Great Patriotic War (along with the Soviet Union). Another group of respondents (around 35%) stated that President Yushchenko was not able to find a national consensus that could promote a balanced view on society and its historic path. In other words, he was struggling to find both positive and negative narratives in the country’s recent history to reconcile and unify the divided society.5 Despite different and even opposite views all respondents agreed that social and humanitarian policies of President Yushchenko were a failure and that they impeded the positive impact of the Orange Revolution.

Sociological data underlines a decreasing confidence in the president, declining from 16.5 % in 2005 to 5.6% in 2006 and 3.6% in 2008; accordingly, the distrust in the president increased from 8.3% in 2005 to 19.6% in 2006 and 23.3% in 2008.6 The percent of respondents who supported President Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution and continue to support him declined from 40.7% in 2005 to 22.4% in 2008 and 8.6% in 2010.7 In 2010, 6 years after the Orange Revolution, only 21.3% respondents considered it as a conscious fight of united citizens to defend their basic rights, while 17% of the respondents merely saw it as a spontaneous protest of people. Almost an equal number of respondents considered it a coup d’état sponsored by the West (24%) or the political opposition (14.3%).  Assessing the lessons of the Orange Revolution, only one third of the respondents believed that the mass protest was useful. These respondents were divided between those who judged it as successful (14.8%) and those who considered it unsuccessful (18.6%). More than one third of the respondents (35.2%) stated that the goals of the Orange Revolution were just but the leaders had let people down. Another 28.9% agreed that the Orange Revolution increased the differences between the regions.  In addition, only 14.2% considered the revolution as a positive event, while 34.9% considered it as having a negative impact on Ukraine.8 The decline in a favorable image of President Yushchenko and the Orange Revolution also influenced the readiness of Ukrainians to engage in different forms of civic protest. The willingness to participate in lawful meetings and demonstration declined from 34.2% in 2005 to 24.7% in 2008. Instead, the belief that all forms of protest are ineffective grew from 25.2% in 2005 to 34.1% in 2008.9 55.8% of the respondents do not believe in the possibility of a new revolution in Ukraine.10

Among young people only 44.3 % have hope for the future.11 34.8%  of younger respondents have an optimistic outlook of the future and 30.9% show an interest in the future.12 Ukrainian youth is less proud of their current country (27%) in comparison to Azeri (83%) and Russian youth and they express less confidence in political parties (12.6%) than Azeri (35.8%) and Russian (24.8%) youth. Similarly, Ukrainian youth show less confidence in civic organizations (32.4%) than Azeri (48.9%) and Russian (42.9%) youth.  But the most striking is the difference in confidence in the president:  in Ukraine only 7% of youth trust president (Yushenko) while 79.4% of Russian and 94.4% of Azeri youth trust their Presidents.  Only 40% of Ukrainian youth support democracy while 25% support authoritarian regimes.13 Additional research shows that 41% of high school students believe that Ukraine needs a “strong hand” and a stern leader instead of democracy, 17% are ready to justify the departure from democratic principles, and only 19% support a democratic multiparty system.14 Even for those who support democracy, the meaning of democracy is rather paternalistic: together with fair elections and the rule of law, it includes stable economic development, personal security, social security, social support, and civic freedom all provided by the government. Only 59% of Ukrainian youth believe that they can change their life themselves and 82.1% think that the government should guarantee and provide for high living standards. When being offered the choice between freedom and personal economic prosperity, the majority of Ukrainian youth prefer prosperity in exchange to their freedom (39% v. 34%).15

This political pessimism and disillusionment of Ukrainian young people leads to low levels of engagement in civic society: 88% of youth are not participating in any civic organizations, and only 1% of youth participate in meetings and demonstrations. Only 5% of youth plan to be engaged in politics in the future.16 Additional research of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation shows that only 39% of youth express their readiness to participate in civic actions and only 24% work on the resolution of social problems in their town or village.17 According to another report in 2010 only 9.2% of young people participated in civic organizations and/or political parties. Even a lower number, 2.6%, worked in or volunteered for youth organizations.18 The attempts to use new mass media technology (such as texting, Facebook, and twitter, among others.) to involve youth in mass protest on May 19, 2011 for The Day of Anger was a failure: only several hundreds of young people gathered near the Ukrainian Parliament. Social media were thus not effective to cope with the general pessimistic outlook and passivity among Ukrainian youth., Instead, their views were dominated by a strong preference for a paternalistic democracy, and powerful leaders. The research of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation also shows that among the reasons for a low level of civic participation is civic pessimism and disbelieve in the ability to change the political and social situation.19

Thus, this research shows that the inability of Orange Revolution leaders to keep their promises of democratic development, led to disappointment in social change, dissatisfaction with current political processes, and disbelief in personal agency. Nevertheless, all respondents in my research believe that the Orange Revolution has forever changed Ukrainian society. 95% of respondents see Ukraine as a more democratic, pluralistic, and open state than any other post-Soviet state and are convinced that Ukrainians will never give up their freedom. Ukrainian society is confident that citizens are able to change the future of their country and these strong feelings could be a foundation for the progressive democratic development.

Karina V. Korostelina is Associate Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.



  1. This research is supported by the Ebert Foundation, Office for Ukraine and Belorussia. []
  2. Koprowski, Gene J. (2004). Wireless World: The ‘Orange Revolution’. In Internet Space.  Retrieved on May 27, 2011. []
  3. Stepanenko, V. (2005). Prychuny i chynnyky pomeranchevoi revolustii. In Spodivannya na inshy Ukrainu. Institute of Sociology, UAS, p. 9. []
  4. Zlobina, O. and V.Tihonovich (2005). Nova hvylya u sprinyyattyi syspilstva. In Spodivannya na inshy Ukrainu. Institute of Sociology, UAS, p. 24. []
  5. The results of the 2005 poll of the Institute of Sociology show a regional and political divide among the respondent vis-à-vis their perception of the Orange Revolution. While 40% among the inhabitants of Western Ukraine expressed that they had a positive image of the revolution, the percentage was as low as 18% for Eastern Ukraine. While 33% of the inhabitants of Western Ukraine felt free, only 16% of their counterparts in Eastern Ukraine expressed this feeling. 13% of Western Ukraine’s inhabitants mentioned a disorderly society, compared to 40% in Eastern Ukraine  (Zlobina, O. and V.Tihonovich (2005). Nova hvylya u sprinyyattyi syspilstva. In  Spodivannya na inshy Ukrainu. Institute of Sociology, UAS, p. 28). Additional research showed that 63.4% of Western Ukrainians expressed a feeling of victory, whereas only 7.1% of their Eastern counterparts felt the same. Political affiliation also had an impact on the assessments of the Orange Revolution:  it was viewed positively by 62% of the supports of the right parties and only 27% of the supports of the left parties (Ruchka, A.  (2005). Postpomaranchevi vidchuvannya gromadyan. In Spodivannya na inshy Ukrainu. Institute of Sociology, UAS, p. 43-44). []
  6. Vorona, V. and Shulga M. (eds) (2010) Ukrains’ke suspilstvo 1992-2010. Sostiologichnyi monitoring. Institute of Sociology, NAS of Ukraine, p.513. []
  7. Ibid., p. 614. []
  8. Ibid., p.615. []
  9. Ibid., p. 501. []
  10. Ibid., p.616. []
  11. Ibid., p.451. []
  12. Ibid., p.216. []
  13. Gromads’ka dumka molodi Ukrainy, Azerbaydzhanu ta Rocii. Democratic Initiatives Foundation. Retrieved on June 1, 2010. []
  14. Rovestnyky nezalezhnoi Ukrainy: dumki, interecy, gromadyanski pozistii. Democratic Initiatives Foundation. Retrieved on June 1, 2010. []
  15. Ibid. supra note 13. []
  16. Ibid. supra note 13. []
  17. Ibid. supra note 14. []
  18. Yaryna Borenko, Y. (2010). Reviews on youth policies and youth work in the countries of South East Europe, Eastern Europe & Caucasus.: Ukraine. Council of Europe. []
  19. 20-richchya students’koi revolyustii na graniti: ch gotova c’ogodnishnya molod’ do akstii protestu?.  Democratic Initiatives Foundation . Retrieved on June 1, 2010. []


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