by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on August 25, 2005.
Ukraine's Orange Revolution swept out the corrupt leaders of the past and ushered in a new era of honest government and market reforms. Soon Ukraine, once controlled by the totalitarian Soviet Union, would join the Western world as a prosperous bastion of capitalism and individual rights. Its revolution would continue to inspire similar protests and reforms around the world.
Or so I'd hoped.
When I heard that a Boulder friend had business contacts in Ukraine, I passed along some questions in anticipation of confirming my hopes. The answers I got back dampened my enthusiasm. I'm still glad about the Orange Revolution (something that even has its own Wikipedia entry), yet hearing from a couple of Ukrainians has reminded me that good cultural and political reforms are difficult and easily derailed.
I'm not using full names, and I'm leaving their English unchanged, aside from a few spelling corrections.
Anton described recent events: "I don't think it's a 'revolution.' Maybe good planned PR action." I asked whether Viktor Yushchenko, the new president, has been successful. "Nope. They had put down dollar and euro to stabilize national currency. Export-oriented economics were nearly destroyed. They initiated re-acquisition of the property. Increased taxes. Also president's son is involved into some scandals etc., etc., etc. New headrules are not much different to the old ones. Except they 100 percent have no clue about how to run the country."
"Everything is WORSER then it was before. Corruption is the same -- names had been changed... Most of the property in the Ukraine belong to Russia. Starting from big plants and ending with GSM communications companies."
Perhaps the most depressing comment was in reply to my question about human rights: "If you have money here you can buy more human rights than in U.S." (He visited the U.S. in 2000.)
Anton's co-worker added, "My comments would be the same. What you call revolution was well-planned and well-paid-for PR action. No changes really. One family is replaced by another one. To make it worse the new government is itself several financial groups with own interests (Yushchenko, Timoshenko, Poroshenko) and they don't even pretending they act as one government.
"To make it even worse the economical strategy and plans of the new authorities weren't and will not ever be published. They do not have them. They got no VISION nor understanding of WAYS. Thus nobody really know where this country is moving to and whether it is moving anywhere. Generally please recollect Evita by Webber 'Oh what a circus, oh what a show... The best show in town was a crowd outside the Cassa Rossada crying Eva Perron... But that's all gone now... As soon as the smoke from the funeral clears, they all gonna see her and how she did nothing for years.'"
What does all this have to do with us in Colorado, aside from the business contacts? The Orange Revolution raises universal issues. Positive social reforms can take an agonizingly long time. I hope the two Ukrainians from whom I heard are overly pessimistic. They are understandably discouraged by an apparent lack of real reform, but I hope that Ukraine will continue to move in a better direction in coming years.
In the United States, the tension between "all men are created equal" and institutionalized slavery was not resolved for nearly a century. And then it took about another century for the civil-rights movement to wipe away (mostly) racist laws. Meanwhile, the liberal Weimar Republic degenerated into Nazi Germany in a matter of years.
The U.S. revolution was a success that launched arguably the most successful government in the history of the world. The French Revolution was a disaster. Most revolutions are horrible, blood-stained disasters. Ukraine's revolution, whatever its flaws, at least peacefully transferred power.
One of the most successful political reforms of the past century took place in Japan, under conditions of extended U.S. occupation. (My grandfather was part of the occupation force.) Unlike in Iraq today, the United States didn't leave it to local factions to wrangle over the constitution. Essentially General Douglas MacArthur wrote Japan's constitution with the help of Army lawyers.
Democracy isn't enough to achieve positive social reforms. Democracy often has paved the way to mass murder and dictatorship. Masses in the streets aren't enough. Force of arms isn't enough. Good intentions aren't enough.
What any good revolution needs, be it one of ballot boxes or bullets, is a foundation of good ideas. It needs the principles of individual rights -- each person has the right to live for his or her own sake -- and the idea that the proper purpose of government is to protect people's rights to own and trade property and pursue their goals without fear of violence or expropriation.
We are the heirs of the American Revolution. The principles of that revolution are so deeply embedded in our culture that they have survived decades of special-interest warfare and assaults by socialists.
The masses that marched through the streets of Ukraine believed they were fighting for a brighter future. Meanwhile, too many Americans actively undermine the cultural conditions that keep their own revolution alive.