Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Did Lech Walesa prevent bloodshed during the Orange Revolution?


The Orange Revolution has already entered our lexicon as a code word for a romantic and colorful demonstration of people power, inspiring other nations to pursue their dreams of democracy. We would be wise to remember how dangerous the situation truly was at the time, and how easily it all could have ended in violence and bloodshed. No doubt there were many tense moments of confrontation and negotiations behind the scenes, with many players playing a role in what eventually led to a peaceful and democratic resolution.

Lech Walesa of Poland has claimed that he was personally responsible for the avoidance of bloodshed in the recent Orange Revolution that swept Viktor Yushchenko into the presidency on a wave of popular protest against rigged elections. The orange-clad demonstrators, who took over Kyiv's main Independence Square called the "Maidan" for many snowy days, faced off against an impressive array of government forces, both police and military.

At the time there were great fears of violence erupting, and a great effort was made by the demonstrators and those organizing them to befriend the security forces and to implore them to avoid violence against the people. Similarly, the demonstrators showed remarkable discipline and restraint in avoiding confrontations and refusing to be provoked into some sort of disturbance which could have been used by the government as an excuse to put down the demonstrations with force.

There have been many accounts of the behind the scenes maneuvers by various parties and the negotiations and confrontations which occurred that resulted in the eventual peaceful conclusion of this dangerous situation. A story in the New York Times, which was covered on this blog, claimed that an official of Ukraine's FSU rescinded an order which had already gone out to ministry forces to attack the demonstrators.

The organizers of the demonstrations themselves have claimed that since they were able to befriend the local police and other security forces already deployed in Kyiv, they deserve the credit for avoiding bloodshed. The local forces had issued a public statement saying that they would not follow orders to attack peaceful demonstrators and that they would instead defend the people.

No doubt there were many players behind the scenes, of what was obviously a much more dangerous situation than any of us could have completely known at the time. I remember reading that there were urgent phone calls placed by Secretary of State Powell at the last moment, warning of dire consequences should the standoff end violently. This no doubt played a part.

There were many rumors at the time. We were all afraid of the Hungary scenario -- or the 1968 Czechoslovak scenario -- with Russian tanks wading into the crowds with the stated goal of "bringing order". There were rumors that there were already ten thousand Russian troops dressed as Ukrainian forces standing by to take action -- a well-known tactic of the Russians to interfere under the guise of "leaving it to the local authorities" and also avoiding the danger that Ukrainian troops would refuse orders to fire on their own people.

But there is no doubt in my mind that the situation was very dicey. And this report, (and I have absolutely no reason to disbelieve Lech Walesa, one the of towering giants of the fight for democracy in Eastern Europe), I think tallies with other reports I remember reading at the time that showed that Yanukovych was all for cracking down violently on the demonstrators, while even Kuchma was telling him to back off.

So it is completely believable to me that Yanukovych did indeed issue such an order. I'm sure the warning of bloody failure, with an image in his mind of himself hanging from a lamppost in the middle of Independence Square, concentrated his mind wonderfully.

Read this remarkable story:

. . . '[Yanukovich] said an order had already been given to the security forces,' Walesa told The Observer yesterday. 'I told him: "You will lose. You have no chance to win. The only choice you have is between defeat with bloodshed and defeat without".'
. . On 23 November, Yushchenko invited the former shipyard electrician - Poland's President from 1990 to 1995 - to mediate with Yanukovich. Walesa arrived as the Yushchenko camp was emboldened by the Ukrainian supreme court's decision to postpone recognition of the disputed election results.

Yushchenko's allies claimed that Russian special forces troops were already in Ukraine, waiting for the order to crush the protests. A Ukrainian Interior Ministry officer said 10,000 of his troops were on standby.

'If you don't withdraw your orders, you will lose after bloodshed, and perhaps eventually be hanged from a lamppost,' Walesa warned Yanukovich. 'I said: "Here, with these witnesses in this office, will you tell me that you will order those people on the streets to be beaten, or not?". After this talk of bloodshed, he said he would withdraw the command.' Walesa won Yanukovich's promise to open negotiations with Yushchenko, 'for the sake of Ukraine'.

'So I went to the people in the square and told them: "In this situation, the real threat is provocation, so don't let yourselves be provoked'."


At 3:03 PM, Anonymous One Eyed Cat said...

I believe Walesa played a role in preventing bloodshed as did Kwasniewski. Ultimately, it was the will of the ukrainian people that saved the day.


At 1:59 AM, Anonymous Pindar said...

What a story, so complicated with so many twists and turns, a story that could have so easily turned out differently with tragic results!


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