Why we should be sober about the long-term prospects of stable democracy in Ukraine

March 11, 2014

Pro-Ukrainian supporters take part in a rally Sunday in the central Crimean city of Simferopol. The message on the balloon reads: “We are for peace in Ukraine.” (Thomas Peter/ Reuters)

The following is a guest post from Princeton University political scientist Mark Beissinger in which he discusses the lessons from his recently published article in the American Political Science Review (“The Semblance of Democratic Revolution:  Coalitions in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution,”) for ongoing developments in Ukraine. In conjunction with this post, the article will be “ungated” and made freely available to the public for the next 30 days here.

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Images of tens of thousands of ordinary people rising up against a violent, unjust and thoroughly corrupt regime is the stuff of intoxication for any champion of free government.   But if one looks carefully at what binds together those participating in urban civic revolutions like the Euromaidan protests, the Egyptian revolution or other seemingly democratic uprisings, one reaches a far more sober assessment of the prospects for stable democracy in their wake.

Such is the conclusion of my own research on the values and beliefs of those participating in the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, recently published as “The Semblance of Democratic Revolution:  Coalitions in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution,” American Political Science Review, vol. 107, no. 3 (August 2013), pp. 574-592. The research is based an analysis of the March 2005 monitoring survey conducted by the Institute of Sociology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (n=1801).

Surveys that allow one to compare — systematically and in detail — those who participated in a revolution with others in society are surprisingly rare, in large part because urban civic revolutions like the Orange Revolution typically occur suddenly, taking observers and participants by surprise.

Monitoring surveys had been conducted in Ukraine by the Institute of Sociology annually since 1994 as a way of understanding social and political trends in Ukrainian society.  But in March 2005, immediately after the Orange Revolution, two questions were added to the survey that rendered it an extraordinary useful tool for understanding revolutionary politics:  whether respondents participated in the protests of the Orange Revolution, and for whom respondents voted in the December 2004 presidential elections.  Putting these two questions together, one gets an unprecedented picture not only of those who participated in the revolution on the Orange side (19 percent of respondents), but also those who supported the Orange Revolution but did not participate (36 percent), mobilized against the revolution as counter-revolutionaries (2 percent), opposed the revolution but did not mobilize against it (32 percent), and remained completely inactive or apathetic (neither protested nor voted) in the midst of revolutionary upheaval (9 percent).

The survey represents a unique record in the study of revolutionary politics.  Never before have we had such an extensive information on the personal habits, behaviors, attitudes and backgrounds of participants in a revolution, nor been able to compare revolutionaries on all these attributes with those who supported the revolution but did not participate, revolution opponents, counter-revolutionaries, and the apathetic or inactive.  For example, controlling for the age of respondents, Orange revolutionaries were more than eight times more likely to be from Western Ukraine, twice as likely to attend church and to be Internet users, 58 percent more likely to be male and 24 percent more likely to say that they had true friends than the rest of the adult population of Ukraine.

By contrast, controlling for age, counter-revolutionaries were twice as likely be male, three times more likely to speak Russian at home and to have engaged in physical exercise sometime in the previous seven days, four times more likely to be dissatisfied with the condition of their homes and almost six times more likely to be from a single province of Ukraine (Donetsk—the province of Yanukovych’s political base) than the Ukrainian adult population as a whole.

The problem with urban civic revolts like the Orange Revolution, the Egyptian revolution or the Euromaidan uprising is that they rely primarily on a strategy of massing hundreds of thousands of civilians in central urban spaces in a highly concentrated period of time in order to pressure an incumbent regime and induce key members of the ruling coalition to defect. While this can be an effective strategy for gaining power and imparts an image of popular legitimacy for political change, revolution participants are actually a minority of society, most are motivated more by common disdain for the incumbent regime than by commitment to democratic values, and the democratic master narratives that accompany these revolutions function as a holder for a wide variety of grievances and purposes—some democratic, some not.

For example, although the Orange Revolution was ostensibly carried out in the name of democracy, less than three months after the revolution ended, only 34 percent of Orange Revolution participants said that they favored a multiparty system for Ukraine, while 38 percent opposed it and 28 percent did not know how to answer the question. Moreover, there was no statistically significant difference between the way in which Orange Revolution participants responded to this question and how other groupings in society responded.

Although the Orange Revolution had been sparked in significant part by abuses of presidential power, Orange revolutionaries and revolution supporters were much less likely to oppose the introduction of direct presidential rule that would limit severely the power of the legislature than were revolution opponents and counter-revolutionaries. And Orange Revolution participants were just as likely to agree with the statement “Several strong leaders can do more for the country than laws and discussion” as were Orange Revolution opponents and counter-revolutionaries, with 61 percent of Orange revolution participants agreeing with this statement.

Once the revolution gained power, commitment among most revolution participants to democratic values and norms was conspicuously weak.   Thus, popular mobilizations against autocratic regimes should not be confused with commitment to democracy — either within the population at large or among revolutionary participants.

When the goal of opposition is to mobilize as many citizens as possible against an incumbent regime, revolutionary coalitions tend to be diverse and highly fractious.  Thus, the 2005 survey shows that Orange Revolution participants were considerably more diverse than Orange supporters, revolution opponents, counter-revolutionaries or the inactive and apathetic. Moreover, there was little consensus on major public policy issues among Orange Revolution participants, who consisted of three roughly equal groupings of opinion in terms of policy preferences:  anti-market nationalists, socialists and pro-market nationalists.

Rather, what united Orange Revolution participants and differentiated them from other groupings were shared cultural practices, identities and symbolic capital, which acted as an adhesive across what was otherwise a highly disparate set of participants.  Thus, 92 percent of Orange revolutionaries claimed Ukrainian as their native language, but only half of the inactive and apathetic and 31 percent of revolution opponents did. Moreover, 74 percent of Orange Revolution participants reported that they spoke primarily Ukrainian at home, while 70 percent of Yanukovych voters as a whole reported that they primarily spoke Russian at home. Quite literally, Orange revolutionaries and opponents of the revolution “spoke different languages” in their everyday lives.

Finally, when asked how they primarily identified themselves, Orange revolutionaries chose “Citizen of Ukraine” almost twice as frequently as revolution supporters, opponents and the apathetic, and the revolutionaries were much less likely than these other groupings to choose a local or regional identity.

We know, of course, what followed.  Despite the shared cultural capital that united Orange revolutionaries, once its anti-incumbency goal was achieved, the Orange coalition quickly unraveled.  Its leaders became engulfed in factional squabbles; its participants demonstrated weak commitment to the revolution’s democratic master narrative, failed to mobilize in defense of the revolution’s articulated ideals and broke down into the factions out of which the revolution was composed.  Eventually, the very people whom the revolution evicted from power were able to win their way back to office through the ballot box.

Thus, as we think about the trajectory of the Euromaidan uprising, we need to be cognizant of several things.

First, while mass media have been quick to code Euromaidan as a struggle for democracy, those who participated were propelled by a variety of motivations (civic, national, and economic), many of which relate weakly to democratic change. These other motivations will inevitably come to the fore in the coming months as a post-revolutionary government is formed and gets down to the job of governing.

Second, the coalitions underpinning urban civic revolutions like Euromaidan are fractious and highly unstable.  In the case of Euromaidan, extreme nationalists formed a coalition with more moderate elements, who themselves are divided between two groupings — Yulia Timoshenko’s Fatherland Party and Vitaliy Klychko’s UDAR (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms) — that have failed to cooperate in the past and have somewhat different constituencies and policy preferences.   This coalition was forged through common opposition to Yanukovych, shared national symbols and opposition to Russian intervention in Ukraine.  But once the current crises over the Russian intervention in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine separatism recede, one should expect significant infighting among the revolution’s victors, particularly as they are faced with choices concerning their divergent policy preferences.

Finally, even without confronting a Russian incursion, the challenges facing post-revolutionary government in Ukraine are exceedingly large. If Ukraine’s new leaders are to live up to their democratic promise, they must tackle the thorny political, economic and national issues that propelled Ukraine into revolutionary crisis in the first place, deal with the new challenges in eastern and southern Ukraine unleashed by the revolution, reconfigure their negative revolutionary coalition into a positive electoral one, and foster a new culture of democratic purpose.

As the record of other urban civic revolutions attests, without extraordinary leadership and significant incentives from abroad, seemingly democratic revolutions have tended to lead to unstable democratic results, providing a temporary increase in civil and political freedoms, followed by authoritarian backtracking.

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Previous posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage:

Additional commentary from the NYU Social Media and Political Participation(SMaPP) lab not at The Monkey Cage: Tweeting the Revolution: Social Media Use and the #Euromaidan Protests

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