Shades of the Orange Revolution

Razom nas bahato! Nas ne podolaty! Together, we are many. We cannot be defeated. These are the iconic words behind Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, a series of political protests spurred by allegations of mass electoral fraud and government corruption. Primarily caused by a lack of trust in the then-President Kuchma and the disputed results of the second round of voting, the Orange Revolution would serve as both inspiration for other colored revolutions globally and the backdrop for Ukraine’s later Euromaidan protests in 2014. This article serves as a brief exploration behind the factors enabling the Orange Revolution, detailing the political motives it achieved, and concluding with a brief reflection of its impact on Ukrainian identity going forward. The evidence shows that these protests not only served as a formidable influence as a watershed moment in post-Soviet politics but also spurred on the desire for economic and social development.

Factors Behind the Revolution

The immediate cause of the unrest were allegations of election fraud: specifically, exit polls during the runoff election placing challenger and reformist Yushchenko with a formidable lead over his opponent, Yanukovich, at 52% to Yanukovich’s 43%, despite the official results declaring Yanukovich the winner by 2.5% (Karatnycky, 2005, p. 35-36). Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, quickly thereafter, reported record-breaking voter turnout: a “miraculous”, new 1.2 million votes with 90% of them favoring Yanukovich (Karatnycky, 2005, p. 36). These votes were primarily centered within the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, with voter turnout ranging above 90%.

Fig. 1: A woman with a voting ballot, 2007.

It would later be reported that the Yanukovich faction had intended on using administrative resources both during the campaign and election day, “mounting massive pressure on state employees, pensioners, and other people dependent on the state to vote for Yanukovich” (Petrov and Ryabov, 2006, 148-149). Additionally, actions such as repeat voting and vote count falsification were witnessed by independent domestic vote monitors, as various teams of voters traveled from polling station to polling station with absentee ballots (Karatnycky, 2005, p. 36). These actions were supplemented by constant negative electoral press, tightly controlled by state-backed media and television channels.

Post-Soviet Corruption

To fully understand the Kuchma regime's efforts to support its backed candidate, Yanukovich, it is imperative to learn the context behind the stark wave of corruption and fraud which defined the state after the fall of the Soviet Union. This article will use the definition of corruption supplied by Melnik, "bribery and venality of governmental employees… abuse of power or official position, performed for personal interests … [and] a feature of organized crime" (Melnik, 2001 as cited in Zhdanov, 2002). This conceptualizes corruption as a complex phenomenon manifesting in illegal acts such as bribery and voter manipulation.

Fig. 2: Monetary bribes are among the most common forms of corruption employed by state actors.

A 2002 examination of corruption within Ukraine, “Corruption in Ukraine: Essence, Scale, and Influence”, by Igor Zhdanov, paints a grim picture in the lead-up to 2004’s Orange Revolution. In the executive branch, it was found that many politicians had bought and sold positions within the highest ranks of government, primarily based on patronage ties to family members and personal allegiance to political groups (Zhdanov, 2002, p. 35). These 'sales' of government positions “[allowed] leaders at the highest level [to] create an entire pyramid of corrupt relations penetrating all levels of government”, thereby rendering it highly difficult for an independent politician to obtain a position entirely through their merits (Zhdanov, 2002, p. 35). In fact, such corruption was so widely known that the People’s Deputy of the time had remarked “It is not the official structures which exercise authority, but the oligarchs and clans” (Chitaite i sravnivaite, reshaite i golosuete, 1999). As such, collective apathy and corruption played a vital role in Ukrainian politics in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These factors set the stage for the Orange Revolution.


Beginning on November 22, 2004, shortly following election day the day prior, massive protests began in major cities across the state. The largest demonstration amassed 500,000 participants, who donned in the highly-symbolic orange of Yushchenko’s political campaign, and marched in front of the national parliament, Verkhovna Rada (BBC, 2005). During this time, Yushchenko would take a mostly symbolic oath of office, indicating the campaign’s resolve during the months it would therefore take for Ukraine’s Supreme Court to declare the election invalid (Yushchenko takes reins in Ukraine, 2005). By January 11 of the following year, Yanukovych had resigned as prime minister and Yushchenko was declared the legitimate president with 51.99% of the vote (BBC, 2005). On January 23, after a long and sordid battle, Yushchenko was sworn in as Ukraine’s new president. He would serve for a total of six tenuous years, before being replaced by a democratically-elected Yanukovych in 2010.

Fig. 2: A mass of protestors, with the iconic Maidan square in the background.

Impact, Nearly Two Decades Later

The Orange Revolution has been increasingly delegated to the sidelines as compared to the more well-known, and perhaps violent, Euromaidan revolution a decade later. However, it remains paramount to acknowledge the lasting impact this peaceful revolution left on a state marred by political corruption and a growing geopolitical influence to the east in the form of Russia. Beyond its geopolitical impact of a developing, Westernizing Ukraine, the revolution significantly impacted the manner in which Ukrainians themselves perceived their own ethnic and social identities. Post-independence, the lines of what separated Russia and Ukraine were blurred, as the latter sought to navigate the turbulent world of the international order without its incorporation in the Soviet Union. Scholars have regarded this watershed moment in Ukrainian history as “a national awakening”, setting many citizens’ sights onto a more democratic state: towards Europe, and rejecting the authoritarian nature of Russia (Dickinson, 2020). However, such a psychological shift towards Europe has continued to intensely deepen the ethnic and political scars of the state, specifically within the geographical areas of eastern and southern Ukraine. Though ultimately resulting in the election of Yushchenko, the Orange Revolution helped to pave a pathway for ethnic, cultural, and political divides especially exemplified in the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Donbas. Ultimately, those divides set the background for the war in 2022.

Bibliographical References

BBC. (2005). Timeline: Battle for Ukraine. BBC News. Retrieved from BBC. (2005, January 23). Yushchenko takes reins in Ukraine. BBC News. Retrieved from

Chitaite i sravnivaite, reshaite i golosuete (Read and compare, decide and vote). (1999). 6. Kreshchatik Dickinson, P. (2020, November 23). How Ukraine's Orange Revolution shaped twenty-first century geopolitics. Atlantic Council. Retrieved from

Karatnycky, A. (2005). Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Foreign Affairs, 84(2), 35–52.

Mel’nik, I. Koruptsiia: sutnist’, poniattia, zakhody protydii (Corruption: essence, concepts, measures for counteraction). (2001). 113–116.

Petrov, N., & Ryabov, A. (2006). Russia’s Role in the Orange Revolution. In A. Åslund & M. McFaul (Eds.), Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine’s Democratic Breakthrough (pp. 145–164). Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Zhdanov, I. (2002). Corruption in Ukraine: Essence, Scale, and Influence. Connections, 1(2), 33–50.

Visual Sources

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Dana Kit

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