How to Keep Ukraine"s Revolution Alive

Dramatic events in Kyiv over the last few days have kept the world glued to their TV, computer and smartphone screens. The bravery of the Ukrainian people has re-energized freedom lovers and democracy seekers. But the success of this endeavor has yet to be decided, and the next few weeks will be critical for Ukraine. We all are drawn to a good revolution – but it is the day after, and the day after that, that is the hard part. And it is far easier to predict the perils that can derail a revolution than it is to come up with the solutions to keep it on track.

As I arrive again in Ukraine, I am reminded of my first trip there after the Orange Revolution, in 2005, when I was Georgia’s newly elected president, also fighting to forge a democracy that would move our nation from beneath the shadow of the former Soviet Union. On that trip, five months after Ukrainians had swept aside their old government, I was startled to learn that virtually none of the critical reforms needed to transform the country had even been initiated or planned. It was heartbreaking because I know the energy it takes to win a revolution – and because it was probably already too late to get that one right.

This time, we should avoid those mistakes. This time, we should get it right.


Georgia’s own Rose Revolution took place about a year before its Orange sister. What Georgia faced when the crowds returned home from the streets was not so different from Ukraine – a failed state with a systemically corrupt and non-functioning economy that delivered no services to its people and was wracked by crime and ruled by networks of criminals, with parts of the country no longer under the control of the central government. As Ukraine is now, my country then was often referred to as “a place of bribes and tribes.”

But by that point, 17 months after the Georgian revolution, the talented team of ministers and experts working in my cabinet had done much to begin to tangibly alter the way the Georgian state interacted with its people – and thus also change the way the people viewed the state. People believed that change was real. It bought us time to understand the enormity of the checklist that we faced.

Eventually, we used the time to create a legacy for the country: the defeat of corruption, reformed institutions, a manifold increase in the budget, modern infrastructure and an attractive place for investment.

But time to make such things happen is a luxury of which Ukraine will have little.

The Revolution will be crowdsourced…

In 2014, the critical nature of beginning to immediately transform the way the Ukrainian state interacts with its citizens cannot be overstated. This is doubly true when the revolution is no longer just televised, but crowdsourced. What we saw in the streets of Ukraine was not about what various groups of the political elite wanted, but what the people of Ukraine wanted. And now whatever elite takes the reins has to deliver as never before.

In crowdsourced revolutions, the people of a country are terrifyingly connected and involved. The tools of accountability are more nimble and incisive than ever, and the expectation of progress is measured by hours, not by weeks or months.

This is an entirely new form of political development. The existing literature on transforming the energy of revolution into the energy of reform and nation-building cannot even begin to apply – and we have several stalled post-Arab Spring projects as examples of how traditional thinking or slow action have failed to sustain revolutions.

Ukraine will be the battleground for new ideas, and hopefully something successful.

… and Ukraine’s new leadership needs to be prepared to deliver…

To give Ukraine’s second revolution a real chance for success, four things must happen in the coming weeks.

First, the opposition must stay unified on principles rather than personalities. Ukraine already lost one revolution, the Orange one a decade ago, to elite infighting, making it all the more important that this become a lesson learned.

Second, the fragmentation of Ukraine must be prevented. Any attempts to question or weaken Ukraine’s territorial integrity by internal or external forces cannot be allowed. Off-handed statements from Russian officials about seizing Crimea must be responded to swiftly and clearly by the US and the EU.

Third, “ordering” the revolution is critical. This can only be done through fast, free and fair elections that create a government viewed as legitimate by the people – a government that can be a partner for the international community to engage and support. Until and unless the Ukrainian people are invested in their government, Western investment to facilitate this transition cannot succeed. Only after elections will the government have any trust of the people to conduct the reforms essential to restoring and revitalizing Ukraine’s democratic project.

Fourth, the international community must remain engaged long after the streets grow quiet and the cameras go home.

… and the West must be prepared to help.

Those watching from the West need to be prepared to help in several critical ways.

We need to help Ukraine get its elections right as quickly as possible. Nothing can happen without a government trusted by the people.

We need to prepare to allocate resources to support robust programs to aid reforms once a government is in place to enact them.

We need to proactively offer significant financial assistance to balance the economy during this transition and decrease the immediate impact on the people of Ukraine.

Mikheil Saakashvili was president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013. He is now senior statesman at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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