Maxim Eristavi is a Ukrainian journalist and nonresident research fellow at the Atlantic Council.
This morning, I woke up with one thought in my head: The fate of democracy in my country may be decided by a vote over which I have no control. The Ukrainian president and parliament have just joined to pass legislation that could mark the beginning of the end of the democratic institutions for which so many have fought and died.
The unprecedented declaration of martial law in Ukraine, the first since World War II, came just hours after Russian warships attacked Ukrainian naval vessels in the Sea of Azov, opening a dangerous new front in the continuing Russian-Ukrainian war.
The bill that President Petro Poroshenko sent to parliament, and which lawmakers passed on Monday, gives the president wide-ranging powers, but Poroshenko assured the public that he wouldn’t use those powers to suppress civic freedoms. But are we all comfortable just taking his word for it?
Let there be no doubt: Ukraine is right to demand a stronger global response to Russia’s continuous violations of its sovereignty and borders. Moscow is responsible for killing thousands of Ukrainian citizens, either directly or through proxies. Since 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea, we’ve been living through most brutal violation of international law on the European continent in decades — and the international response has been underwhelming. The Kremlin is working to undermine our democracy, to crush Ukrainians’ European ambitions, and to bring Ukraine back under Russian colonial control.
Even so, the decision to introduce martial law will help Russian President Vladimir Putin achieve his aims even faster than his own military bullying. Ukraine’s fragile democracy may not survive it. Poroshenko suspended the election campaign for the first vote since the 2014 Maidan Revolution, which promised a peaceful change of power. Having lost all popular support (and bringing his polls down to historic lows), he has now awarded himself all-encompassing emergency powers.
The Ukrainian government did not, in the past, resort to martial law during the more extreme episodes of Russian aggression. As bad as the current crisis is, it can hardly compete with the worst moments of the war, such as the annexation of Crimea or the Avdiivka offensive of 2017, during which tens of thousands faced the threat of death and starvation.
We cannot entrust arbitrary powers to a president who has continued to make policy with the same oligarchs who have been running the country as their personal fiefdom over the last two decades. We cannot trust a president who systematically fails to guarantee protections for journalists, whistleblowers, civil society activists and minorities, and who still refuses to disclose the details of his recent meetings with Putin’s right-hand man in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk.
We also can’t ignore global experience. The history of other democracies’ flirtations with martial law contains two lessons: First, even allegedly “limited” emergency powers tend to prolong themselves. Second, unconsolidated democracies (such as Ukraine) rarely survive a leader’s assumption of such powers — just consider recent developments in Turkey, Thailand and the Philippines.
Even if Ukrainian democracy survives the 30-day period of adopted martial law, it will still suffer severe damage. The interruption of the election campaign will undercut whatever legitimacy Poroshenko can still claim, since his unlimited powers will effectively give him a huge head start over his competitors. The law will cover almost half of Ukraine’s population of more than 44 million, creating countless opportunities for manipulation in key swing-vote regions. The president could, in theory, defuse this concern by promising not to run in 2019, an assurance that foreign allies of Ukraine might now want to demand.
Ukraine would not be the first democracy in the region to collapse under the pressure of war. Russian democracy died in the early 2000s when Putin used a crackdown in Chechnya as an excuse to dismantle democratic institutions. But the demise of Ukrainian democracy will have toxic effects across all of Eastern Europe. Russia’s colonial ambitions will find far fewer obstacles in its way. Kleptocratic elites in other regional democracies that are facing existential territorial threats — such as Georgia, Moldova or Armenia — might also decide to hype military threats in order to whitewash authoritarian power grabs.
The fact that the Ukrainian parliament pushed back against the president’s power grab — reducing its term from 60 to 30 days, and restricting his extra authority a much smaller territory than he had originally requested — offers at a sign of hope. But it would be wrong to put much trust in Parliament, either, given its long history of oligarchic influence and its penchant for cutting deals out of sight of the public.
Ukrainian lawmakers are congratulating themselves on finding a compromise between the needs of a free society and a president who needs expanded powers to protect the country. But I worry they may have fatally compromised democracy in the process.