The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukrainians are not that divided in their views of democracy

 Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and ARC Laureate Fellow and Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

Current events escalating in Crimea highlight the polarization among political leaders and activists in Ukraine. Developments reflect conflicting visions of the country’s future diplomatic ties, whether as part of the European Union or linked to Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

But how much do the recent events reflect cultural cleavages among ordinary people living in Ukrainian society?

New cross-national survey evidence to examine Ukrainian public opinion is available from the World Values Survey. This study, which now includes more than 90 countries, is a global investigation of socio-cultural and political change. The survey started with the first wave in 1981 and the 6th wave contains surveys from around 60 countries with data gathered from 2010-2014.

In 2011, during the period when President Viktor Yanukovych was in power for the Party of Regions, the 6th wave study conducted a representative survey of 1,500 Ukrainians, almost equally divided by the language spoken at home into Russian and Ukrainian speakers.  For comparison, the World Values Survey also conducted a similar survey of public opinion in the neighboring states of Poland (#966) in 2012 and Russia (#2,500) in 2011. The comparison allows us to see how Russian and Ukrainian speakers in the Ukraine share similar cultural values with each other or whether they are closer to the values found in each neighboring state.

Attitudes towards democracy

First, do Ukrainians differ in their attitudes towards democracy? Are Ukrainian speakers more enthusiastic for reforms strengthening political rights and civil liberties, while Russian speakers hanker for the strong state and stability of their authoritarian past?

One way to examine attitudes is through using a 0-10 point scale, where respondents were asked to assess the importance of living in a country which is democratic. Figure 1 illustrates the results showing that there are indeed some modest differences; Ukrainian speakers rated the importance of democracy marginally higher than Russian speakers. Ukrainian speakers are therefore located a bit closer to political attitudes found in Poland, while Russian speaking Ukrainians express values which are slightly closer to Russian attitudes. But the gaps within Ukraine were extremely modest.

For another measure, people were also asked to use a similar 0-10 point scale to express their satisfaction with the performance of democracy in their own country. Here all Ukrainians proved somewhat critical of how democracy worked in practice, fairly close to the opinions of most Russians, while by contrast Poles proved more satisfied with how democracy worked.

Another way that political attitudes and values can be measured concerns public reactions to statements describing alternative forms of rule.  Respondents were asked in the survey whether they thought it was good or bad to have a strong leader ‘who does not have to bother with parliaments or elections’, a way of tapping into approval of authoritarian rule without mentioning the ‘d’ word.

Here it appears from Figure 2 that Ukrainians overwhelmingly agree with the desire for strong leadership – and in this both Russian and Ukrainian speakers in the Ukraine are strikingly similar to Russians.  Almost three quarters of Ukrainians and Russians approve of the idea of strong political leadership, perhaps expressing frustration with the process and outcome of elections. Only citizens in Poland display a stronger commitment to the principles and procedures of liberal democracy by strongly rejecting this form of rule.

Nevertheless public opinion is not wholly clear and consistent; when people were asked whether they approve of having a democratic political system, it appears that public opinion favors this form of government in all the societies under comparison. This pattern is also found elsewhere around the world, where the principles of democracy are widely endorsed, even among citizens living under one party states and authoritarian regimes.

Finally, what about trust and confidence in their government and parliament?  Here again there are some modest contrasts between Russian and Ukrainian speakers, following the expected direction. In 2011, Russian speakers expressed slightly more confidence and trust (+8 percentage points) in the government of President Victor Yanukovych (Party of Regions) than Ukrainian speakers. This reflects the map of votes cast in the Jan. 17, 2010 presidential contest. On the other hand, only around one-fifth of Ukrainians expressed ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot of confidence’ in both their government and parliament, compared with far more Russian confidence in President Putin.

Ukraine is a complex and fragmented society at the historic cross-roads of Western and Eastern Europe, with ethnic-linguistic identities which have deepened by recent political events. Nevertheless the most striking observation from the comparison of political values held by Ukrainian and Russian language groups in the country is the similarities rather than the contrasts. Both groups adhere to the ideals of democracy today, while both groups are skeptical or even cynical about the actual workings of regime institutions. It remains to be seen whether any outbreak of armed conflict, lit by the spark of Russian interventions in Crimea, deepens ethno-linguistic political divisions and weakens social tolerance within the country.