It was a story that made headlines in the International sections of U.S. newspapers and occupied a nearly three-week slot in the 24-hour cable news cycle, but few Americans likely took notice of the actual events occurring on the ground in Ukraine back in 2004 as that country’s presidential elections took a decidedly undemocratic turn.
The post-Soviet regime had handpicked party insider Viktor Yanukovych to carry the banner, one associated with corruption, a censored media and domination by wealthy business leaders. The opposition backed Viktor Yushchenko, a seeming man of the people who ended up the victim of a mysterious poisoning that left him deeply disfigured weeks before the election.
Exit polls claimed Yushchenko the victor, while the media, which was controlled by the regime, announced Yanukovych the winner. What happened next is the subject of a fascinating and timely documentary by veteran filmmaker Steve York. Orange Revolution captures the street protests from the early hours after the first election results hit the airwaves until a new set of fair and open election results are achieved through a surprisingly organized nonviolent movement.
I talked to York a few days after the Supreme Court ruling granting corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited funds to support candidates and issues of relevance to their interests. Many believe this decision bestows “personhood” on businesses and paves the way for unprecedented control of the monied class over the interests of the people here in the U.S.
Ever the objective documentarian, York sees beyond the obvious parallels.
“It is very interesting how different people react to the film,” he says. “Certainly back in 2004, when we started the project, it never occurred to me that people would see whatever it was that we eventually finished and find that it would have any relevance to domestic politics.”
Yet at the time that York and his crew were filming, barely addressed references to the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2000 — which, in effect, declared George W. Bush the winner of U.S. presidential election — loomed on the domestic political front. He is quick to acknowledge this before delving into how he came to be involved in the project.
“Back in 1998 or 1997, we did a three-part series for PBS, an anthology of successful stories of civil resistance, of nonviolent struggle beginning with Gandhi.
There was a segment on Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, the defeat of Pinochet in Chile, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
“The experience of doing that, especially in conjunction with the other historic documentaries I had worked on (ABC News projects on D-Day and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), made me realize that war and violent struggle had a lot in common with nonviolent movements in terms of strategy. There’s a huge overlap, to the extent that it could be argued that they are almost identical.
“In working on all of this, I had my eyes opened to it all and I just kept them opened to other examples, like this one.”
Orange Revolution began its journey on the feature documentary circuit before its current PBS broadcast incarnation, and York found himself answering questions about the lack of protest here in the U.S., similar to those of the Ukrainians, as a result of the 2000 elections. Couple that with the recent campaign finance ruling, and one wonders why there isn’t more mobilization against such developments.
“My quick answer to that is that things haven’t gotten bad enough here yet to motivate and mobilize people,” he says. “And that’s a very sad thing. I think we’ve been in some moments of national crisis, like the 2000 election, that probably deserved some kind of massive uprising and action in the street.
“There are two ways to how we have acted or failed to react. You could argue that we (Americans) are too comfortable and complacent, which again is a sad commentary on us as a society. But the positive view is to say that Americans have enormous faith in the system itself and a belief that it is self-correcting and strong enough to survive the tangents that arise and seek to derail it.”
Steering things back to Orange Revolution, I ask about its lasting impact, again seeing it from the context of President Obama’s much-discussed mobilization of young voters and independents during the 2008 elections and the tumble his approval ratings have taken in recent polls.
It is telling that, early in the documentary, one of the revolution’s advocates clarifies that while Yushchenko is the opposition candidate, the movement and its efforts are not centrally focused on this one candidate or even an ideology. The Orange Revolution, much like any historical uprising, was about the true expression of the people’s voice.
Yushchenko has proven to be an ineffective leader, so were the protests in vain? York points to four key results that have changed the political landscape in the Ukraine: 1) There is a free press; 2) elections are now free and fair; 3) there is more constitutional balance between the president and parliament; and 4) the people realize their power.
That fourth factor is the real game-changer.
The realization of the Ukrainian people that they have this power and can use it again, if necessary, balances the political structure more fundamentally than any constitutional amendment. The people are now a force within the political stratagem that any side or candidate can tap into, and as this example has proven, they are more dynamic than bullets or any single legislative order.
It truly is much the same here in the U.S.
We’re not dominated by totalitarian regimes, despite what some extreme political operatives might argue. Rather our two-party democratic pendulum swings back and forth with no real significant defections across party lines. Candidates, from time to time, are simply able to incite enough voters to trek to the polls.
This is a bastardized exploitation of the power of the people. We need to remember the real deal.
Such sustained efforts as those of the Ukrainian people are not a reflection of our society, but Orange Revolution might, one day, serve as a model. We should tune in now, because how often are revolutions televised on their anniversaries. (tt stern-enzi)