An Orange, A Rose and A Tulip: Lessons from the North

July, 2011
By Ambika Vishwanath

On a recent visit to Ukraine, I landed in Kiev on the first day of the pre-trial hearing of a case against Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko; a woman who was one of the main leaders of the Orange Revolution of 2004. A member of the current opposition party, she was under investigation for abuse of power and corruption, though to many it seemed that the motivations of the trial were purely political. The charges brought against her are from the camp of current President Yanukovych; interestingly, the very man against whom the revolution of 2004 was against. The main boulevard leading to the Independence Square, home of the revolution in Ukraine, was filled with protestors hoping that this would not mark the end and failure of the famous Orange movement. The judge at the hearing subsequently ruled in favour of a trial, and now (early July 2011) Tymoshenko stands on trial; marking the death of Ukraine’s freedom movement for many. 

Across the sea, countries in the Arab world are going through freedom movements and revolutions of their own. With two ousted presidents, interim governments, leaders that cling to power and clamp down hard against protestors, the region is facing a period of turmoil. Beyond the turmoil, there is an overwhelming feeling of utmost hope that these movements will bring change and a new era of governance and life. Some will say that change is inevitable, that nations and people cannot go back in time. But the lessons from Ukraine and other similar movements teach us that change might not always be favourable, as swift as desired or even long lasting. Many have compared movements in the Arab world to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iranian revolution of 1979, and while these are important experiences, there are many lessons to be learnt from other countries, some that are not always put in the same basket as the Middle East.

Ukraine of 2011 teaches an important lesson that a fallen leader does not automatically ensure the fall of institutions, and that systems have to change as well. For which, time and a collective action by all sections of society and the bureaucracy is required. Otherwise, the transition from disorganized autocracy to disorganized democracy may not necessarily lead to improvements in the country’s development prospects. Without this, it could also result in a return of ousted leaders, such as Yanukovych’s return in 2010, due to widespread public discontent and disillusionment. There is also the example of Kyrgyzstan, where in 2005 the Tulip Revolution forced the ouster of Askar Akayev. Hastily held elections lifted Kurmanbek Bakiyev to the presidency. Yet, in 2010, discontent and a new round of protests forced Bakiyev from power, leaving the country in further uncertainty.

In Egypt, the Supreme Military Council is moving at a slower pace than desired, protests and mass rallies continue and while the streets of the city seem cleaner, the systems essentially remain the same. While some leaders have been brought to justice, many controversial figures remain in place and people are demanding a new constitution and immediate change. In Tunis, there is talk of bringing some of the former President’s men back to aid in a smoother transition; men who have supposedly been cleared of wrongdoing. The public is not convinced and demand more transparency. The experiences of both Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan bear testimony that transitions and change cannot be immediate and sudden, and that hasty decisions could prove fatal in the future. It is important not to overestimate the ability of new governments to solve old problems, or underestimate the ingenuity and brutality of the old regimes. As a blogger from Tunisia says, “We need to change the spirit of the system”. 

Any new government that forms in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, will have to ensure that it retains legitimacy by delivering visible improvements within the country as well as re-establish relationships with neighbours. Other richer regimes in the region can afford to spend their way back to stability, an option not available to economically unstable and poorer Arab countries. It would also prove prudent and useful in the long term to join free trade agreements or customs unions that will aid and support trade, investment and economic growth, ensuring that the country is not solely dependant on foreign aid and handout packages. In 2003, the Rose Revolution in Georgia elevated a younger generation led by a president without ties to Soviet communism and the old guard. Saakashvili remains committed to Georgia’s membership into NATO as well as maintaining strong relations with Turkey, an important neighbour and ally. The trend is towards regional partnerships.

The interim governments in both Egypt and Tunisia have renewed relationships with their African neighbours and dialogued on further collaboration. Such cooperation with stronger economies in Africa, better ties with Europe and new associations with other emerging economies will prove fruitful in the future. An opening of society and more freedom will also allow people to grow and contribute. Though the Ukrainian revolution might have faltered in aspects of governance and seem to have failed, the country today has a high level of freedom of speech and press which is a direct result of the Orange movement. While different histories, religions and traditions have created different circumstances between the Arab world and their northern neighbours, the essence of creating good governance structures and proper institutions remain the same. It would serve Egypt and Tunisia well to examine the experiences of others around the globe and not just in the immediate neighbourhood; and perhaps that will in turn serve to positively influence the entrenched regimes of Libya, Syria and Yemen.

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