Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
Why is Ukraine still democratic?
It shouldn’t be, having experienced three crises of the sort that almost always push countries toward authoritarianism.
The first was the Maidan Revolution of early 2014. Unlike most revolutions, which result in the revolutionaries amassing power, Ukraine’s upheaval replaced the highly centralized and corrupt regime of President Viktor Yanukovych with a freer and more democratic political system.
The second was the war that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin unleashed against Ukraine in the spring of 2014. Countries that fight wars and resist foreign aggression almost invariably curtail freedoms and centralize authority. Ukraine did not.
The third was the economic crisis that swept Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s occupation of the eastern Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Gross domestic product fell by more than 20 percent in 2015-2016, popular misery increased significantly, and social discontent rose. Yet instead of reacting in the manner of most economically strapped states and cracking down, Ukraine expanded popular freedoms.
Explanations of Ukraine’s vibrant democracy usually focus on two factors. First, there is the vitality of its civil society, the grass-roots initiatives and nongovernmental organizations that produced the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Maidan Revolution of 2014 and that are still keeping the heat on the authorities and forcing them to play by democratic rules. Second, there is pressure from the West in general and the United States, the European Union, NATO and, in particular, the International Monetary Fund, which has made diplomatic and financial support conditional on continued democratic development in Ukraine.
These explanations are correct, but they miss what may be the most important driver of Ukrainian democracy: Putin’s war. The annexation of the Crimea and the occupation of the eastern Donbas have had several important consequences for Ukraine and its ability to sustain democracy.
Most obviously, by seizing these territories, Russia effectively disenfranchised Ukraine’s most authoritarian, pro-Soviet and pro-Russian populations. People who traditionally voted for authoritarian parties were denied a say in Ukraine’s post-revolutionary politics, thereby enabling the democrats to pursue their agendas without obstruction from the parties that historically opposed democracy. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions – a powerful machine that paid U.S. political consultant and Donald Trump confidante Paul Manafort $17 million for his political advice – has practically disappeared from Ukraine’s political landscape.
Authoritarian parties, leaders and members of the public were not the only ones to lose their influence on Ukrainian politics. By seizing the industrial Donbas, Russia and its proxies dealt a powerful blow to Ukraine’s authoritarian oligarchs, most notably Ukraine’s richest tycoon, the formerly pro-Yanukovych Rinat Akhmetov. With their assets lost, destroyed or expropriated, the oligarchs have been less capable of steering Ukrainian politics in support of their anti-democratic interests.
Russia’s war had two more pro-democratic consequences. It transformed Russia, which most Ukrainians used to view with amity, understanding and even affection, into an enemy committed to killing Ukrainians. As a result, Putin and his dictatorial regime became exemplars of what Ukraine should avoid emulating.
No less important, the war did what all wars do: It galvanized Ukrainian national identity to the point that the vast majority of Ukrainians today have no doubts about who they are not and who they are. They are not Russians, and they decidedly are Ukrainians, even if they remain committed to speaking the Russian language in private. Putin’s aggression compelled Ukrainians to band together and discover that they are a people.
This new Ukrainian “nationalism” has been at the core of the many volunteer efforts aimed at supporting the war effort, monitoring government agencies, and promoting human and civil rights. Ukrainian civil society is so strong precisely because Ukrainians have become a nation with a democratic vision of their present and future.
Will Ukraine remain democratic? Ukrainian civil society and nationhood are here to stay. The Crimea and the occupied eastern Donbas are unlikely to revert to Ukrainian control anytime soon. The West may once again experience Ukraine fatigue, but so long as Putin’s Russia remains committed to great-power imperialism and hybrid war against the West, the United States, Europe and their key institutions are unlikely to abandon Ukraine. These factors bode well for the continuation of democracy.
Militating against them is the possible return of the oligarchs and of populist authoritarian parties. If Ukraine can stay the course, continue with its impressive internal reforms, and create a well-functioning market economy and polity, the oligarchs will eventually become rich elites with no more influence than their counterparts in other democratic states. Successful reform will also keep the authoritarian pro-Russia parties effectively marginalized.
Ironically, Vladimir Putin, his odious authoritarian regime and his violence against Ukraine have played key roles in Ukraine’s continuing success with democracy. Russia’s dictator surely did not expect to hasten Ukraine’s transformation into an increasingly Western state when he invaded Crimea in early 2014. And he surely didn’t expect to lose it to democracy when he opposed Ukraine’s democratic transformations.