Is this to be the story?

Neal Ascherson reports from Kiev

Revolution is a staircase. In February 1848, the poet Lamartine found himself in charge of a Paris revolution, from an upper floor in the Hôtel de Ville. He identified on the staircase something as specific as a tornado: a roaring double helix formed of those fighting their way upwards and those pressing downwards. It appears whenever a society mutinies and decides to make a new world. I first saw it in the Sorbonne in May 1968, clinging to a landing-wall to avoid being sucked into the deafening vortex, the up-torrent waving despatches from the front line and the barricades, the downrush battling towards the street with rolls of posters and strung bundles of fresh leaflets. Since then, even in the little history I have seen, there has been the staircase of Solidarity’s first Warsaw strike headquarters in 1980, or of the White House parliament during the 1991 Moscow putsch.

Now it’s at Kiev, on the staircase of the trade-union building taken over by the Orange Revolution at the corner of Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square. Here is that same spiral tumult. Up struggle the deputation of nurses, the delegation of building workers in orange hard hats, the men with sacks of potatoes, the boy with a tray of bread and sausage balanced above his head. Down struggle the Turkish and Mexican journalists, the giant in a fur hat with a bundle of orange armbands, the pallid youth clutching bulletins and biting a green apple, the schoolgirls’ strike committee chanting ‘Yush-chen-ko!’ Somewhere above, a boy is throwing out poems which whirl down the stairwell and are trampled into the black meltwater on the ground floor. In dim corridors stacked to the ceiling with mattresses, young women are asleep on kitchen chairs or lying against the wall. Along trestle tables under the names of Ukrainian towns, a mob jostles to register. Over the din, I can hear the howl of pop music in the square, the cheers of the crowd, the sound of bass voices practising Slav harmonies on the next landing, the parliamentary speaker on television shouting for order. There is a reek of dirty socks and cheap cigarettes. Someone has written on the wall: ‘We are a people, not a herd.’

So this is the genus ‘revolution’ all right. But which species? Some foreign commentators, especially in London, suggest that it’s a specious species: that the Ukrainian upsurge is only one of a series of carefully staged coups (Serbia, Georgia, now Ukraine) managed with American money and planning. The American backing was certainly there, channelled through the Freedom House foundation into the radical youth movement Pora (‘Time’s Up!’); it provided tents, food, communications gear and probably cash as well. But it was not decisive, and did not obviously benefit any White House cause. I found the people on the square, young and old, sharply critical of the United States; they disliked President Bush, wanted Ukrainian troops out of Iraq and were suspicious of American meddling in Ukrainian affairs. The foreign interference which did count was the work of the election observers and, above all, the clever publication of reliable exit polls at the moment when the fraudulent results were about to be published.

There is a more hopeful definition of what has been happening. This is the ‘second round’ of European revolutions, following the grand upsurge of 1989 after a gap of 15 years. The first round carried away the external Soviet empire. This second round is setting fire to the post-Soviet systems around Russia’s borders. It began just over a year ago in Georgia. Mikheil Saakashvili said then that his country would be the first in the post-Soviet zone (the Baltic Republics apart) to follow the path opened by the nations of East and Central Europe 15 years earlier. If the peaceful uprising in Ukraine succeeds (and it is too early to know how Viktor Yushchenko will use his powers as president), others will follow. Lukashenko’s disgusting regime in neighbouring Belarus will be doomed. Opposition forces in the autocracies of Central Asia will take heart.

And Russia? At the barricades outside the presidential office I met Sasha, in charge of keeping the blockaders and the police line apart. ‘This will spread to the Russian people too. They will see what happens here, and they will begin to understand what Putin is doing to them. And the same in Belarus. If we succeed – only if!’

There is a good term for these regimes – ‘demokratura’. Most of them have democratic furniture: constitutions, parliaments, a formally separate judiciary, regular elections, guarantees of free expression and assembly. Communism, after all, has been overthrown. In practice, these institutions are manipulated to maintain the privilege of a post-Communist elite. In some demokraturas, like the Asian ones, manipulation is total and shameless. In others, like Ukraine or Russia, the falsification of elections and the use of state violence against political challengers has usually been undertaken with some discretion. The important thing is to keep your own mob in power while persuading the people and the outside world that the political process at least roughly reflects the popular will.

In Ukraine last month, demokratura hit the limits set by its own hypocrisy. The presidential election result had to be cooked, and yet there was no practical way to exclude foreign election monitors while maintaining a pretence of fairness. Worse still, with TV only partly under state control, Ukrainians had been warned to expect fraud at the final run-off vote. When the foreign observers loudly confirmed that fraud had taken place, the lid blew off.

There are two conflicting views – one hopeful, the other ‘realistic’ and dismissive – about these second-round revolutions. The hopeful version is that these uprisings (‘rose’ in Tbilisi, ‘orange’ in Kiev) begin the transition from demokratura to democracy, ‘the completion of 1989’. The pessimistic version is that these are merely succession wars – what the Germans call a Diadochenkampf – between members of governing elites and clans who stir up popular passion for their own temporary purposes. The sceptics suggest that what really matters in a demokratura change of guard is not largesse with human rights (freedoms scattered to the crowd like handfuls of small change), but the dirty trade in immunities. Putin got the Russian presidency by promising Boris Yeltsin that he would push through an act of amnesty for Yeltsin and his family despite their colossal thefts of public money. Nobody is going to send Edward Shevardnadze to jail in Georgia, though some of his greedy relations may be less lucky. Yushchenko probably offered an immunity deal to get the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, out of his way; charges against him could range from gross corruption, complicity in the beheading of the opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze, and conceivably involvement in the attempt to poison Yushchenko in September.

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