The 2004 Orange Revolution through the eyes of Russian propaganda
Russia’s use of all available mechanisms to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence began in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of Ukrainian independence.
For this purpose, Russia created organizations or blocs, like the Commonwealth of Independent States, and even security organizations, likeCollective Security Treaty Organization, to maintain a sense of a collective amongst republics previously a part of the Soviet Union – and along with it, Russia’s “Big Brother” status. Such initiatives were presented as alternatives to the organizations and alliances of the Western world.
Outside of its efforts to maintain its sphere of influence through institution-building, Russia skillfully penetrated Ukraine’s internal affairs through collaborators and the spread of propaganda.
As we commemorate the historic and pivotal events that were the three Ukrainian revolutions, we analyse the ways in which these revolutions had impacted the democratization of Ukrainian society and the ways in which these events had been distorted and discredited by Russia.
In the 1990s, the Ukrainian political elite was more ‘convenient’ and loyal to the Kremlin. In 2004, however, the Orange Revolution became the point where Russia began to impose its interests on Ukraine more aggressively.
The Orange Revolution is significant as a historical point of reference for Ukraine’s explicit embarkment on a path towards European integration and the struggle for freedom. Then, Russia seriously spread its disinformation narratives using various propaganda instruments — similar to those it applied in other countries. Today, the Russian Federation is still trying to discredit the contemporary movement for freedom in Ukraine.
The fight against Viktor Yushchenko
During the 2004 election campaign, Russia spread disinformation against Viktor Yushchenko, an opponent of pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych.
In order to disrupt Yuschenko’s presidential campaign, a fake narrative was created which argued that Yushchenko sought to classify and rank Ukrainians into three categories in accordance to the region they are from with Ukrainians from the east of the country allegedly ranked as third and those from the western part of the country as first. Such a sentiment was amplified in order to split the unity of Ukrainians and entrench pro-Russian sentiments across the Ukrainian civil society – these efforts were unsuccessful.
Two decades later to this day, political analysts and opinion leaders in Russia publicly claim that Yushchenko allegedly came to power in a “dubious” way, having allegedly removed his “multi-vector” (i.e. pro-Russian) predecessor Leonid Kuchma from power. The “cherry on top” of these narratives are frequent claims made by Russian propagandists that in 2004, Ukraine became a Nazi state.
Image of Nazis
Russian special services portrayed representatives of the “orange” government and their leader Viktor Yushchenko as Nazis.
In the same vein, there were attempts to link civic campaigns that monitored the transparency of the electoral process to extremist nationalism and political opposition. These attempts at creating a fake image of what was simply the upholding of democratic processes were unsuccessful thanks to the independence of the Ukrainian civil movement.
Despite vote fraud and manipulation having been identified during the elections, as well as an anomalous voter turnout of 97% in Donbas, Russian media spread information that these elections “were transparent, free and fair.” The victory of the pro-Russian candidate Yanukovych as a result of vote fraud was beneficial for the Russian authorities.
The biggest discrepancy between the number of voters established by the Central Election Commission of Ukraine in 2005 and the number of voters registered to participate in the 2004 presidential elections is in those regions that voted mainly for Yanukovych. The greatest discrepancies noted were the following: 187 thousand non-existent voters in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, 160 thousand non-existent voters in the Kharkiv region, 100 thousand non-existent voters in Crimea, and 80 thousand non-existent voters in the Dnipropetrovsk region.
The mythical external origins of the revolution
As for the Orange Revolution itself, Russia did everything possible to make the world believe that the revolution was inspired and initiated by the United States of America and not by the Ukrainians themselves.
In support of this thesis, the Russian agency RIA “Novosti” published a report about an alleged involvement of American PR specialists in the Orange Revolution.
The falsified propaganda narratives were unsuccessful in their attempts of influencing Ukraine’s civil society.
The main achievement of the Orange Revolution was the initiation of a long process of Ukraine’s realisation of its aspirations to pursue a European integration course.
The second achievement of the Orange Revolution was its defense of the Ukrainians’ right to choose their elected representatives in free, transparent elections. Ukraine’s record of diverse governments over the course of its independence attests to its commitment to democracy.
The third crucial achievement of the Orange Revolution was the defended right to independent media. The attempts to falsify the elections in favor of the pro-Russian candidate through the use of bureaucratic mechanisms and the spread of disinformation were quickly identified and countered by Ukrainian independent media, which consolidated its role as an imperative actor within Ukrainian civil society onwards. Since then, the independent Ukrainian media has often served as a watchdog and has been a mouthpiece of diverse, versatile, and objective information.