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The first corporate revolution

Social uprising in the Ukraine. By Ulrich Schmid

The 'orange revolution' in the Ukraine has shown that even political upheavals suit their image to the times. Unlike the members of the Solidarity movement in Poland, the revolutionaries in Kiev were not isolated. In bringing Leonid Kutchma's government to its knees, they were in constant contact via the latest technologies, and were aided by PR advisors abroad.

Only one group could keep up with the supremely self-confident Ukrainian revolutionaries: the Poles. Polish students came in hundreds to support their comrades, media consciousness written all over their faces. There were also older colleagues in the crowd, activists from the once independent Solidarity union dying to pass on their knowledge and experience. But next to the young, energetic students from the Mohyla University they seemed a little helpless. Yes, they were respected; the polite revolutionaries from Kiev were aware that it was Solidarity, with its broad civilian base, that struck the first blow against the bulwark of communist tyranny. Nonetheless, when the two worlds met in Kiev some members of the older camp may have thought to themselves: how different it was back then in Danzig!

Today's revolutionaries – whether from Belgrad, Tbilissi or Kiev – use the most modern forms of communication. They take the Internet, mobile phones, photocopiers and faxes for granted and receive massive support from the West. In Poland, the Solidarity activists were isolated and had to overcome formidable communication obstacles. The technical icon of the fight against Jaruzelski and his peers was the photocopy machine, with its subversive smell of alcohol that once intoxicated the progressive generation in the West. Otherwise there was word of mouth and the conventional telephone. It could take ages for instructions to make their way from union headquarters to the activists.

In November, if something happened in Donezk, people in Kiev knew about it seconds later. Little attention was paid to the conventional media. Since the murder of journalist Georgi Gongadze, the Internet has become the symbol of incorruptibility for Ukrainian youth. The state-controlled newspapers lied miserably during the communist era, and remain discredited today. Truth abides in virtual space.

The idea of giving the revolution a colour, like a product, was a total success. The Ukraine has witnessed the first 'corporate revolution'. Wearing an orange scarf was like sticking your tongue out at the corrupt regime. People who wore orange had a collective identity, exuding confidence. And everything that was previously orange – corporate logos, buses, street workers' uniforms – automatically became advertising. The modern revolution was chic: the mustiness of bearded demonstrators was replaced by stylish outfits, and nobody sat around the camp fire strumming a guitar.

Of course, the uprising in Kiev cannot be explained by telecommunications and fashion alone. More important was the political climate: the post-Soviet Ukrainian state was chaotic but pluralistic. Walesa and his followers had been up against communist tyrants with little interest in the democratic facade that Kutchma tried at least to maintain. The revolution in Kiev was only possible because the Ukraine, despite all its flaws, was no longer a totalitarian regime. Under Kutchma's competitive authoritarian rule, both the political and the economic realms had several centres of power. And the opposition played an important role, both in parliament and in society. In this context, the peaceful and mostly legal behaviour of the opposition played greatly to their advantage. The major achievements of the opposition in Kiev did not result from storming the palace, provocation or bloody conflict, but from legal verdicts and parliamentary resolutions. The 'corporate revolution' was also a strictly legal one. Yushchenko will profit from that.

The coup was trendy, it was modern and it was audacious. But it was not anti-capitalist. For that reason the European Left found it hard to endorse entirely. Purists criticised the liberal speeches of the opposition, their business-like tone, their heretical happiness, and most of all their good contacts abroad. European social democrats did not care at all what Yushchenko and his democratic followers were fighting for during the election. The only clear message that came from the disdainful and disinterested votes of socialists Prodi and Solana last summer was: don’t aggravate Russia!

When the revolution began, the Left identified a suspect right away. Its name was, once more, 'America'. Rather than seeing the insurgents as freedom-seekers or idealistic youth, the Left saw them as minions of the USA, paid agents of Coca-Cola or the CIA. The old hypocrisy of the Left raised its ugly head. Yes, this Left might have said, we subjugated ourselves at Bad Godesberg and professed our belief in capitalism in order to be re-elected. Nevertheless the others, those far away, the poor, must keep the dream of socialism alive. But this view fails to recognise that liberalism has won back its right to revolt.

For potentates in the ex-Soviet sphere from Lukashenko to Nasarbayev, the upheavals in Kiev were cause for even more suspicion. In central Asia these leaders are without exception former secretary generals of the communist party. In the entire region they fear for their own positions, well aware of the fragile legitimacy of their 'directed' democracies. And they all come to the same logical conclusion: beware of the rumblings. Opposition movements in these countries must prepare for hard times.

But nowhere is consternation over the revolution in Kiev so great as in China. No other land in the last 25 years has been so convinced that economic and technical progress can be accomplished without unpleasant socio-political consequences. The ruling clique in Beijing subscribes to an apolitical modernity in which all forms of progress are welcome other than emancipation. Cars, stocks and foreign travel – yes. Democracy and a constitutional state – no. So far, the Chinese communist party has been successful with this strategy. Social contradictions are growing, true, but there have been no national protests since the Tienanmen massacre. And the West, intellectually and morally torn by the massive potential for profit, avoids critique of the Chinese tyranny on specious grounds of ethnic respect.

In fact the rulers in Beijing should relax. Mobile telephones and the Internet are not revolutionary per se, but only when they are in the hands of fearless people who already have basic rights. And this is not the case in China. Tienanmen has bored into the collective consciousness, and those in power profit from it. But no doubt the communist party in China is a little concerned to see how fast subjugated Soviets can turn into self-confident citizens, and how effectively modern communication technology can be employed to dispose of a corrupt elite.

Who can fail to notice the similarity between the attitudes of youth in Shanghai and Kiev? And people say kids today are apolitical pleasure-seekers. In Kiev, as in Beijing, the rulers called on the spirits of technical progress to create a sense of wealth and a basic minimum of legitimacy. Nobody was thinking of democracy. One day these spirits will bring changes in Beijing – maybe sooner than we think.


The article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 2 February, 2005.

Ulrich Schmid worked from 1990-1995 as Moscow correspondent for the Neuen Zürcher Zeitung, and spent the next four years in Washington. Since 1999 he has been the paper's Peking correspondent.

Translation: nb. - let's talk european