How Ukrainians became citizens

Alexander Motyl
1 October 2007

Ukraine in late November 2004 is in the grip of two refusals. The refusal of the state machinery to acknowledge the truth of the presidential election result is met by the refusal of millions of Ukrainian people to accept the lies of power.

The immediate political crisis is unresolved at the time of writing. But in a larger historical and political perspective the essence of the current convulsions is clear: Ukraine is on the brink of a democratic breakthrough. A quiescent post-Soviet state that seemed to be unable to do anything right is now poised to embrace democracy, rule of law, and human rights.

The blatantly fraudulent second round of the country’s presidential elections on 21 November was designed to keep in power the parasitic authoritarian regime of President Leonid Kuchma and his anointed successor, prime minister Viktor Yanukovych. Instead, it has provoked what amounts to a classic revolutionary situation: this east-central European nation of 48 million people is now in a condition of “dual sovereignty”.

As the official Central Electoral Commission declares Yanukovych the election winner by a margin of 49.4% to 46.7% - a conclusion challenged by every election monitor and observer except those from the ex-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States - the contours of this political division are clear. On one side stands an utterly discredited and illegitimate regime based on oligarchic interests, a frightened population in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern provinces, and Russia’s political elite. On the other is opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko and millions of ordinary people - ethnic Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians, ethnic Russians, and other minorities - who want to be rid of the corrupt authoritarian rule that has prevented Ukraine’s development into a law-abiding and prosperous European state.

If you find our coverage of Ukraine's political crisis unique and valuable, please donate to openDemocracyLarge-scale demonstrations in support of Yushchenko and in defiance of the official results persist throughout Ukraine – not only in its traditionally nationalist western provinces and their heartland surrounding the capital city of Kyiv (Kiev), but also, and more significantly, in the supposedly pro-Yanukovych eastern provinces.

This popular sentiment is reflected at many institutional and cultural levels. Several cities and provinces have refused to acknowledge the election results. Diplomats at Ukraine’s embassies in the United States and Australia have called on the diplomatic corps to side with the people. Over 150 officials of the foreign ministry have declared their solidarity with Yushchenko. Two members of the CEC have condemned its vote-counting procedures. University rectors have encouraged their students to go on strike.

The Klichko brothers - world-class boxers resident in the United States - have sided with Yushchenko. The Ukrainian winner of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest, Ruslana Lezhychko , has declared a hunger strike until the true Viktor is recognised. The well-known novelist, Andrei Kurkov, has intervened on the side of democracy. And the colour of orange, the symbol of the opposition, has become ubiquitous throughout Ukraine.

On 23 November, when Yushchenko took an oath as Ukraine’s rightful president, he crossed the Rubicon. After that, there was no going back for the opposition. In a move that recalls past revolutionary upheavals, the democratic forces have established a Committee in Defense of the Constitution and have refused to enter into negotiations with the regime.

The democratic forces in Ukraine know that they are winning; that both right and the might of popular opinion are on their side. They know also that they have no alternative to resistance: capitulation, now, would mean that Ukraine would be thrown into Russia’s autocratic embrace and that all hope of living what Ukrainians call a “normal” life would be extinguished for decades.

Not surprisingly, the demonstrators - whether student activists or political elites or just ordinary people - are no longer afraid of the authorities. They have nothing to lose, everything to gain, and they know that they will win.

The Ukrainian paradox

How did Ukraine get to this point? What is the most likely outcome? And what can the world do to promote justice and democracy?

Since Ukraine attained independence in August 1991 out of the ruins of the Soviet Union, it has been viewed as the reform laggard of the post-Soviet space. Indeed, for much of this period, it was seen as the polar opposite of a vigorous, bold, and reform-minded Russia. In the last few years, however, Ukraine and Russia have reversed roles.

Russia is now firmly in the hands of an autocratic president committed to repressing civil society and the media, extending state control over the economy, and establishing a “dictatorship of the law.” Most distressing is that Vladimir Putin continues to enjoy the support of many Russians. In contrast, Ukraine has become a democratic society capable of resisting dictatorial rule - despite the best efforts of Kuchma and his cronies to cow journalists, repress the media, outflank the democratic opposition, and dominate civil society.

The paradox is that Ukraine’s belated democratic success and relative economic backwardness are alike rooted in the glacial quality of its post-Soviet reform process. Ukraine’s leaders eschewed “big bangs” and “great leaps forward” from the very start – not from any theoretical belief in the advantages of incremental reform, but out of fear, ignorance, and a desire to maintain their rule as long as possible.

This protracted experience had three results – one overwhelmingly negative, but two with healthily progressive aspects.

First, Ukraine came to be dominated by a parasitic, despotic elite in cahoots with criminal oligarchs and clans.

Second, the process of institution-building, which by its very nature takes time, was able to proceed more or less undisturbed for fourteen years. As a result, Ukraine’s ethnic Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and ethnic Russians have been able to develop a modus vivendi, a general sense of community premised on a common desire to improve their life-chances in the face of the parasitic class of rulers. Civil society was also able to develop and consolidate, and along with it came a growing sense of civic entitlement and genuine empowerment. Ukraine’s people progressively became citizens, free people who wanted to rule and be ruled.

Third, Ukraine’s economy finally began taking off in 1999; since then, it has experienced tremendous, though inequitably distributed, growth. The combination of a strong civil society and economic expansion meant that unfulfilled expectations of improved living standards could finally find their social expression. For the first time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, popular dissatisfaction could be channelled into autonomous social institutions that were strong enough to challenge the authorities.

To add fuel to the fire, the Kuchma regime did almost everything wrong, succeeding only in alienating Ukraine’s increasingly resilient and participatory citizenry. Corrupt, incompetent, and ignorant, Kuchma managed to infuriate world and domestic public opinion with his likely involvement in the murder of a journalist, Georgii Gongadze. Yanukovych, who was supposed to succeed Kuchma as president, has been even more of an embarrassment. A convicted criminal, a known informer for the Soviet secret police, and a quintessential oligarch, he has come to be best known for his inability to spell “professor” - a title he dares to append, without any sense of irony, to his name.

What should the world do?

There are four remarkable aspects of the post-election protests: generational, regional, political, and international. First, Ukrainian young people in particular have become fearless. Raised in post-Soviet conditions, they want a democratic, market-oriented, open, and modern Ukraine.

Second, the regional breadth of Yushchenko’s popularity is striking; contrary to some media simplifications, it extends to the industrialised, Russian-speaking provinces of the east and south. Thousands of Russians and Russian-speakers have also taken to the streets, suggesting that their ostensibly unanimous support of Yanukovych in the polls (exceeding 100% in several cases) was the product of fraud or intimidation.

Third, if history is any guide to Ukraine’s future, the Kuchma-Yanukovych regime is finished. Filipinos, Serbs, Poles, East Germans, Czechs, Romanians, and Indonesians have shown in the last two decades that “people power” can become unstoppable – and Ukraine’s people power may have reached that point.

The prospect is that as people continue to demand democracy, elite defections will multiply, and the regime will become increasingly isolated. It is too late to shoot back and expect the citizenry to disperse. The Ukrainian army and police are unreliable and likely to side with the people - especially if the regime is stupid enough to employ Russian special forces units against its own population. When the regime finally comes to understand that it has lost - and it will, sooner rather than later – some form of abdication will occur.

Fourth, Russia’s own democrats are also watching events in Ukraine hopefully, as they understand that their own chances of resisting Putin’s authoritarian rule and achieving democracy now rest on Ukraine’s success. But it is the west - the European Union and the United States in particular – that is best equipped to promote democracy in Ukraine. It can do so in four ways.

First, both the EU and the United States must formally declare – as the US secretary of state and the president of the European Commission have begun to do - that they insist on the people’s will being heard in Ukraine. They must also make clear to Russia that any interference in the democratic process in Ukraine - especially by special forces - will result in their reconsideration of Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organisation.

Second, the EU must finally abandon its indifference to Ukrainian democracy and openly proclaim that it welcomes Ukraine’s membership - if and when Ukraine fulfils all the criteria of membership. A “partnership and cooperation agreement” premised on Ukraine’s long-term exclusion is no longer enough. The EU, which understands that the prospect of membership was a key driver of democratic reform in the east-central European states, must extend that prospect to Ukraine.

Third, the United States must push for a democratic Ukraine’s membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Nato is no longer a military alliance, but a security club of like-minded democratic states. Ukraine’s inclusion in Nato would send a powerful signal to democracy’s opponents in the Kremlin that the west genuinely wants to preserve democracy in Ukraine.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the west will have to do everything in its power to help Ukraine succeed economically and politically after it becomes democratic. Fourteen years of exploitative authoritarian rule will not be easily undone. President Yushchenko will need western, and international, support. There is scope for many imaginative openings: removing trade barriers to Ukraine’s goods would greatly assist its economy, expanding student exchanges would provide the country with a world-class cadre of experts.

But more even than these, celebrating Ukraine as a country that has finally joined the community of democratic states would help its citizenry to sustain the sense of pride and the extraordinary momentum that has enabled them, finally, to take their fate and their future into their own hands.


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