Small Businesses Fuel the Fight for Freedom in Ukraine 

*By Claire Trilling
Time Period: 1999 – 2005
Location: Ukraine
Main Actors: Small- and medium-sized Ukrainian businesses; Anatoliy Kinakh and the League of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs
– Material support
– Institutional action 
Generalized strikes 

In 1999, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma won a second term in an election marred by irregularities, kicking off a period of declining democracy characterized by high levels of corruption and violent attacks on dissidents. Two major campaigns against Kuchma took place during this period. The first was the “Ukraine Without Kuchma” movement in 2000, which involved mass protests in the capital, Kyiv, against corruption and illegal activities by President Kuchma and the big business oligarchs who supported him. Although the government effectively repressed the campaign, civil society groups, such as the student-led organization Pora, responded to their failure by undertaking careful planning, training, and network-building over the following years.

Following “Ukraine Without Kuchma,” however, the government and its supporters further eroded Ukrainian democracy. In the 2004 presidential election, the ruling party put forward Viktor Yanukovych as their candidate and began a shadow campaign of manipulation and sabotage of the opposition to ensure his victory. When, despite widespread evidence of fraud, Ukraine’s Central Election Commission announced that Yanukovych had defeated opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko, civil society groups and the opposition political party coalition, Our Ukraine, were prepared to respond. The coalition mobilized their networks to begin the “Orange Revolution,” named after Our Ukraine’s colors. At the heart of the campaign was the nonviolent occupation of Independence Square in Kyiv, which drew millions of participants, many of whom symbolically wore orange. Much of the city mobilized to support the protest camp, while citizens outside Kyiv organized local demonstrations, marches, and strikes. 

Ukraine’s business community played a critical role throughout the campaign, helping to lead to its eventual success. Small and medium-sized businesses provided much of the funding and the food and clothing that kept protesters in Independence Square fed and warm, sustaining the protest through the freezing temperatures of the Ukrainian winter. This support did not come about spontaneously. It was the result of a long, careful process of pre-campaign relationship-building. As part of their preparations, Pora had built specific sections for fundraising and financial management into their organizational structure to facilitate the flow of donations from domestic partners. Small- and medium-sized business owners, often called the “new Ukrainians” due to their political and economic orientation toward the West, were a major source of those donations. These business owners largely supported Yushchenko due to his campaign promises to end high taxes, corruption, and politically motivated investigations into businesses. Their material support allowed Pora activists to begin the Orange Revolution armed with the knowledge they had sufficient resources to sustain a mass occupation of Independence Square in the winter’s freezing temperatures. Outside of Kyiv, small- and medium-sized businesses participated in local strikes. 

Larger business organizations also provided critical support for the Orange Revolution. The League of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (ULIE), which represented the country’s large businesses, initially helped bring Kuchma to power. Over his presidency, however, Kuchma’s inner circle of oligarchs shrunk, alienating many of the country’s business elites and spurring their fears of dictatorship. While few of the alienated business elites publicly opposed Kuchma during his first two terms, the 2004 presidential elections and Orange Revolution provided an opportunity to publicly defect. Anatoliy Kinakh, the head of ULIE, was a candidate in the first round of the elections and then threw his weight behind Yuschenko in the run-offs following negotiations with the opposition. ULIE openly supported the Orange Revolution, providing funding to support the mass demonstrations, with Kinakh even attending demonstrations. 

On December 3rd, in the face of persistent mass mobilization and a series of defections by former regime supporters, Ukraine’s Supreme Court acknowledged the government’s electoral fraud and ordered new elections for December 26. Parliament revised electoral law to limit the potential for fraud and put forward constitutional reforms that would limit the powers of the president thereafter. Yushchenko won the new elections, and the country’s elite-driven backsliding trend quickly reversed. 

The example of Ukraine’s business community provides several important lessons on the role of business in struggles against democratic backsliding. Larger business groups (like ULIE in Ukraine) can play an important role through the use of their high public profile and voice. Smaller businesses may have a quieter but no less critical role to play. High profile movements on the streets are sustained through the reliable infusion of resources to keep them there. While many American businesses have provided such quiet support for local pro-democracy movements such support is often ad hoc and does not always flow to the most impactful frontline organizations. Businesses and activist groups should work to build relationships ahead of time (like Pora and the “new Ukrainians”) such that, when a major mobilization comes, the streams of funding are already in place to support it.

Where to Learn More
– Aslund, Anders. 2009. “The Orange Revolution, 2004.” Chapter in How Ukraine Became a Market Economy and Democracy. Washington, DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics. 175-199.
– Kuzio, Taras. 2005b. “From Kuchma to Yushchenko: Ukraine’s 2004 Presidential Elections and the Orange Revolution.” Problems of Post-Communism, 52(2): 29-44.
– Kuzio, Taras. 2005a. “Pora! Takes Two Different Paths.” Eurasia Daily Monitor, 2(23).
– Polese, Abel. 2009. “Ukraine 2004: Informal Networks, Transformation of Social Capital and Coloured Revolutions.” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 25(2): 255-277.
– van Zon, Hans. 2008. “Why the Orange Revolution succeeded.” Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 6(3): 373-402.

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