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Revisiting our secret role in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution

In the last two decades Ottawa has ploughed sizable resources into anti-Russian, nationalist elements of Ukrainian civil society

Canadian PoliticsEuropeSocial Movements

On November 22, 2004, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in protest of the elections that took place that year. Photo courtesy the National News Agency of Ukraine.

To understand the present, one must study the past.

One of the wealthier parts of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s GDP per capita is now less than half of Russia’s and far below its other neighbours. Every year since 1993 its population has declined and an eight-year-old war in the east of the country has killed some 14,000 people. Three weeks ago, Russia launched a brutal invasion that has killed thousands, caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and driven more than three million Ukrainians citizens out of the country.

Difficulty was foretold in Ukraine’s tentative steps toward independence. In March 1991, 80 percent of Ukrainians voted to remain in the Soviet Union, but within eight months 90 percent chose to leave the rapidly disintegrating USSR.

With the second largest landmass in Europe, Ukraine straddles central Europe and Russia in the east. Eastern and southern Ukraine were part of the Russian empire for two centuries while its west was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Lviv in the west is closer to Vienna than to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Moreover, the country has significant political, linguistic and economic divisions largely based on geography. These west-central and east-southern fissures have been exploited by foreign powers.

Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski laid out Washington’s thinking about post-independence Ukraine in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. “Without Ukraine,” he explained, “Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” Brzezinski argued that drawing Ukraine into Washington’s orbit would deliver a major blow to Russia and help the US become “the key arbiter of Eurasian power relations.”

To achieve this goal the US instigated numerous military and civil society training, supplying and funding initiatives over the past three decades. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USAID and other federal government agencies have plowed multiple billions of dollars into training journalists, judges, and trade unionists, bolstering Western-oriented civil society groups.

Ukraine’s political divisions exploded into the limelight with the Orange Revolution. In 2004, Western-backed civil society groups protested a presidential election in which Viktor Yanukovich officially garnered 49.4 percent of the second-round vote while his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, earned 46.7 percent. Two weeks of protests against the results spurred the Supreme Court to call for a rerun of the vote. In an article titled “US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev,” The Guardian reported that the Orange Revolution was “an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing,” which included “US consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big American parties and US non-government organisations.”

The political figures who drove the Orange Revolution were a former central banker, Yushchenko, and Yulia Tymoshenko, who would go on to become the first woman to serve as prime minister in the history of Ukraine. Yushchenko advocated for Ukraine to join NATO and adopt International Monetary Fund reforms.

Washington had become unhappy with President Leonid Kuchma who was viewed as too independent. Kuchma extended the lease for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, sold weapons to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and supported reversing the flow of an oil pipeline from the Caspian to Central Europe.

In his 2007 book The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union, Globe and Mail reporter Mark MacKinnon details the role played by the NED, USAID, the Open Society Foundations (a grantmaking network founded and chaired by business magnate George Soros), Canada and others in supporting the civil society opposition. MacKinnon writes, “with the Ukrainian opposition—jointly led by Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko, the former central banker—signaling clearly at the end of 2003 that it wanted western help in overthrowing Kuchma, George Soros and the various groups funded by the National Endowment for Democracy went to work making it happen.” The NED’s National Democratic Institute, reported MacKinnon, even organized a secret pact between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko over who would become prime minister.

The Canadian government assisted the opposition movement through its public declarations, funding, election monitors and coordination of foreign diplomats. MacKinnon documented Canada’s role in an investigative piece for the Globe titled “Agent Orange: Our secret role in Ukraine.” Beginning in January 2004, wrote MacKinnon, Canadian ambassador Andrew Robinson “began to organize secret monthly meetings of western ambassadors, presiding over what he called ‘donor coordination’ sessions among 20 countries interested in seeing Mr. Yushchenko succeed. Eventually, he acted as the group’s spokesman and became a prominent critic of the Kuchma government’s heavy handed media control. Canada also invested in a controversial exit poll, carried out on election day by Ukraine’s Razumkov Centre and other groups that contradicted the official results showing Mr. Yanukovich [winning].”

A month before the first round of voting Ukraine’s foreign ministry reprimanded Robinson for complaining about media bias, accusing him of “excessive attention to Ukraine’s internal affairs.” A year after the uprising, Mike Blanchfield of the Canadian Press confirmed the substance of Kyiv’s criticism. Reporting on internal files uncovered through an access to information request, Blanchfield noted that “the Foreign Affairs documents portray our man in Kyiv as a tough-minded straight shooter who had no time for diplomatic niceties.”

Canada even directly financed the Orange Revolution. Under the guise of “democracy promotion” the Canadian embassy spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on opposition-aligned civil society groups. According to MacKinnon, the Canadian embassy helped raise funds to bring veterans of Serbia’s Optor and Georgia’s Kmara, civic protest and resistance groups which had helped Washington topple ‘pro-Moscow’ governments in those countries, to train Ukrainian organizations that began planning to protest the election months before the vote. The lead group in organizing the Orange Revolution, Pora, received US$30,000 from the Canadian embassy, which was its first donation. Alongside others from that group, the head of Pora, Vlad Kaskiv—who was employed by Open Society Foundations—later became an adviser to Yushchenko.

Canada led the international condemnation of the vote, which galvanized domestic opposition. A few days after the poll the House of Commons held an emergency debate on the Ukrainian election with Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan expressing “very, very deep concern” about voting irregularities. “Considering the allegations of serious and significant electoral fraud from international and Canadian election observers, the government of Canada cannot accept the announced results by the Central Election Commission reflect the true democratic will of the Ukrainian people,” McLellan told Parliament.

Canadian officials even got involved in the backroom wrangling over the vote. With the approval of the Prime Minister’s Office, Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a Canadian election observer, promised the deputy head of Ukraine’s Central Elections Commission, Yaroslav Davydovych, and his family safe passage to Canada if he did “the right thing” by disputing the results showing Yanukovych winning by a mere 2.7 percentage points.

Two days after the second round of voting Robinson and other ambassadors met Yushchenko who delivered his “appeal to the parliaments and nations of the world to bolster the will of the Ukrainian people, to support their aspiration to return to democracy.” According to MacKinnon’s reporting, that day, Wrzesnewskyj, whose sister was “close to Yushchenko’s wife,” told protesters at Maidan square: “It’s quite clear to me that Viktor Yushchenko is, in fact, president of Ukraine.”

Many of Canada’s election observers were far from impartial. In a National Post article before the December 26 election rerun Matthew Fisher wrote, “Western reporters in Ukraine last month were shocked at how openly some Canadian observers cheered for Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western opposition leader who the Supreme Court found had been cheated of victory. Like his passionate supporters, these Canadians wore orange garb. One of them was even alleged to have addressed a big Yushchenko rally.

“The journalists felt these people were so over-the-top in celebrating Yushchenko’s Orange Revolution and so loud in condemning the voting process, they were an embarrassment to Canada.”

Ottawa spent over $3 million to send 500 observers to oversee the election rerun, the largest official delegation from any country. Another 500 were sent by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC).

Paul Martin later celebrated Canada’s election monitors. At the launch of a new UCC office in Winnipeg the then prime minister said, “the comportment of these observers was impeccable, their commitment was unwavering, their contribution was inestimable, and they did it with an infectious enthusiasm, with expertise, and above all, with an acute sensitivity to local conditions and culture.”

At that event the head of the Canadian monitoring mission, former Prime Minister John Turner, highlighted the objective of Canada’s intervention in Ukraine. “I’m concerned that the Russians keep their hands off,” said Turner when releasing his post-election report. To counter Russia, Turner called on the European Union to welcome Ukraine as a member.

After seeking to isolate Kuchma, Ottawa supported Yushchenko’s government. Ukraine was selected as one of Canada’s 25 priority aid countries and Ottawa pushed for its adhesion to the World Trade Organization. In launching a trade promotion initiative dubbed “Canada Days in Ukraine” international trade minister Jim Peterson declared, “I think there is incredible potential in that market and I believe that the Orange Revolution has given us an opportunity to see that reforms are made in that country and businesses can be more secure in their operations.”

But Ukrainians soured quickly on Yushchenko’s neoliberal policies and his bickering between with former ally Tymoshenko. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions won parliamentary elections in 2006 and he was elected president in 2010 (Yushchenko won five percent of the vote in that election).

The Orange Revolution heightened regional tensions, engendering significant bitterness in the Russian-oriented Crimea and Donbas, which was Yanukovych’s power base. The events of 2004 set the stage for the conflict unleashed after Yanukovych was ousted in 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin and others have repeatedly cited the Orange Revolution when criticizing Washington’s effort to turn Ukraine into a proxy against Russia.

Canadian officials claimed their aim in 2004 was to support democracy. But months before supporting the Orange Revolution the Canadian government helped overthrow elected officials in Haiti and a decade later participated in the ouster of Yanukovych who won an election Canadian officials monitored.

Ottawa’s primary objective in Ukraine has long been to promote neoliberalism and support Washington’s bid to create conflict between Ukraine and its powerful neighbour. While Canadians should sympathize with Ukrainians who reject Russian influence, and condemn Putin’s criminal invasion, we also need to consider Canada’s considerable role in this unfolding tragedy.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.


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