Ukraine: Why the Orange Revolution ran out of steam

By Daniel Sandford
Moscow correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine

Zaporizhzhya is one of Ukraine's main industrial cities: It is built on the East bank of the majestic Dnieper river - where the mainly-Ukrainian speaking, more agricultural West gives way to the mainly-Russian speaking, more industrial East.

A Russian-speaking city, Zaporizhzhya was one of many areas of Ukraine to turn its back in 2010 on the country's Orange Revolution as anti-Russian rhetoric grew and crippling corruption spread through society.

At first sight it is just another sprawling former Soviet city. Its huge chimneys silhouetted against the winter sky, belching out white smoke.

Cossack raiders

But it has a special place in Ukraine's history and also in the annals of the Soviet Union.

Hundreds of years ago this was a strategic site. Cossack raiders based on Khortytsa Island took advantage of the impassable rapids to plunder goods passing through.

Image caption,
The Zaporozhets was the cheapest Soviet car so the most affordable vehicle for common people

The raiders are seen by many as the founders of the Ukrainian nation.

In Soviet times a huge hydroelectric dam was built here, and vast steelworks grew up to take advantage of the nearby iron ore deposits.

A car plant followed and the Soviet Union's equivalent of the Volkswagen Beetle - the "humpback" Zaporozhets - was built here.

For many Soviet citizens the Zaporozhets was their first car.

As a consequence the people here feel close ties to Russia, as well as a certain independence of spirit.

Their market - as much as there was a market in the Soviet Union - was largely in what is now Russia. They speak Russian, and many have relatives on the other side of the border.

Orange disillusion

The people of Zaporizhzhya were wary of the Orange Revolution of 2004 that peacefully brought Ukrainian nationalists to power.

Image caption,
Mayor Olexander Sin was disappointed with the Orange Revolution's inability to defeat corruption

In the years that followed, the government - trying to build a new nation - put great emphasis on the Ukrainian language, and there were numerous rows with Russia.

This heightened suspicions among the people of Zaporizhzhya and increasing corruption led to a sense of disillusion.

"The most serious disappointment in the Orange Revolution was because they never delivered on their principle promise - to defeat corruption," says Zaporizhzhya's mayor, Olexander Sin.

"People also got fed up with the constant in-fighting in the leadership."

Ukraine's place?

The city's steelworks are still operating.

One of the plants, DeneproSpetzStal, was once a secret manufacturer for the Soviet defence industry but now exports its specialist alloys around the world to oil and aerospace companies.

Image caption,
Steelworkers in the city hope Ukraine can develop independently, without the European Union

It is a thriving, forward-looking business taking advantage of Ukraine's new place in the world.

But workers there explained that the previous government's moves to make the Ukrainian language compulsory, and to join the European Union were unpopular in the city.

"The language doesn't matter", one metallurgist said, "as long as we understand each other."

Ukrainian and Russian are very similar languages.

"We don't have to join the European Union", his colleague added, "I think Ukraine can develop on its own."

Space for fringe politics

They are not much happier with the new government of Viktor Yanukovych. Ukraine has slipped into the bottom third of the world's most corrupt countries.

Image caption,
President Yanukovych is attempting to fight corruption in Ukraine

The danger is that as people get disillusioned with the mainstream they could drift to the fringes.

The local Communist Party built a statue to Stalin last year, which was promptly blown up by far right activists.

Of course Zaporizhzhya cannot be seen to represent all of Ukraine, but the views of people here mirror those of a sizeable proportion of the population.

They are disillusioned with politicians who have spent the last few years trying to build a Ukrainian identity which ignores the close ties that much of the country feels with Russia.

It is not that they want to become part of Russia. It is just that they do not want to rush into alliances with the European Union and Nato either.