On March 3, police in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, forcibly dismantled a camp of anticorruption protesters outside the Ukrainian Parliament, resulting in a violent clash, about 20 injuries, and over 100 detainments. It was the latest in a long string of crises for a country whose claim to democracy has always been tenuous, and which shows no sign of significantly improving anytime soon.
In Ukraine’s historically unstable political landscape, such events are more a barometer of entrenched democratic deficiency than a bellwether of democratic backsliding.
The clashes on March 3 are the most recent entry in a specific thread of Ukraine’s continuing democratic drama: a prolonged feud between current president Petro Poroshenko and the firebrand anticorruption crusader Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia. Ironically enough, Saakashvili initially came to Ukraine on invitation from Poroshenko, who appointed him governor of Ukraine’s troubled Odessa region in the hope that he could help advance Poroshenko’s own anticorruption agenda there. Saakashvili later resigned, claiming that the current government was impeding his efforts to effectively address corruption issues. Since then, Saakashvili has carved out a new niche for himself in Ukrainian politics as the self-styled leader of an anticorruption popular opposition movement, much to Poroshenko’s chagrin.
The protesters involved in the March 3 clashes were supporters of Saakashvili’s, and the clash reflected the simmering frustrations of both Poroshenko’s government and Saakashvili’s opposition. Tensions between the two camps have been mounting ever since Saakashvili’s resignation, with Poroshenko taking the extreme measure of stripping Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship in July 2017. In December 2017, after Saakashvili was detained in Kyiv on trumped-up charges, his supporters squared off with law enforcement, at one point ripping the doors off a police van in an ill-fated rescue attempt.
Saakashvili has since been exiled to Poland, but the events of March 3 speak to the enduring force of his message. As Poroshenko has increasingly suppressed civil liberties, pursued attacks on political opponents, and seemingly stalled on his anticorruption agenda, Ukrainians have become disillusioned with his administration and are beginning to sense danger for democracy.
But such issues are not new to Ukrainian politics. Ever since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has struggled with rampant institutional corruption that has made a truly democratic politics nearly impossible to pursue. Ukraine’s business aristocracy, popularly known as “the oligarchs”, have reaped huge profits through elaborate patronage schemes while the country’s economy has stagnated. Historically, attempts to root out corruption have mostly failed.
And weak democratic institutions and norms have been a great boon to budding authoritarian politicians, who have taken advantage of the political system’s ample opportunities for clientelism. A fractious party system, divided more along lines of personal association than policy, has created an environment in which such ambitions can thrive. In Ukraine as elsewhere, politicians of this stripe have further eroded free and fair elections and civil liberties once in power, resulting in a vicious cycle of patronage and democratic backslide. As Mikhail Minakov and Matthew Rojansky of the Wilson Center point out, power typically alternates between oligarchic “clans”, resulting in a peculiar form of illiberal democracy. Analysts typically class Ukraine as a “hybrid regime“: a state which combines elements of democratic and authoritarian politics.
Ukraine’s woes have only been exacerbated by ethnic tensions and the ambitions of Russia’s Putin regime. Ukraine, located on Russia’s western border and a former member of the Soviet Union, has long been divided between Russian and western interests—strategically, culturally, and politically.
You might be familiar with these troubles if you were following the news in 2014, when the popular ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych (known now as the Euromaidan or Maidan Revolution) resulted in Russia’s invasion and seizure of Crimea, a region of eastern Ukraine inhabited mostly by ethnic Russians.
What you might not know is that Yanukovych had been barred from assuming the Presidency in 2004, after widespread claims of election fraud led to mass protests and a decision by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court to hold a repeat election, which Yanukovych then lost. This event is known as “The Orange Revolution”, after the campaign colors of Yanukovych’s pro-Western opponent, Viktor Yushchenko. During campaign season, Yushchenko was also the victim of an assassination attempt.
The upshot to all this institutional turmoil is Ukraine’s surprisingly strong civil society. NGOs, businesses, and activists in Ukraine have a major role in advocating reform and raising awareness of important political issues, a fact which seems to partially compensate for the unaccountability and authoritarian tilt of Ukraine’s powers-that-be. Freedom House consistently rates Ukraine’s civil society as its strongest democratic institution.
Valerii Pikar, lecturer at Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, finds an excellent metaphor for this phenomenon when he calls Ukrainian civil society “A sled dog, not a watch dog”. In the absence of democratically motivated elected officials, members of Ukraine’s democratically motivated public split the difference. This is evident enough by the strong showing for both of Ukraine’s “Revolutions” and in their effectiveness at achieving their sought-after regime change.
Of course, a strong civil society cannot make a true democracy on its own. As Minakov and Rojansky also show, Ukraine’s post-Soviet politics has so far operated in “revolutionary cycles”, in which agitation for democratic reforms give way to oligarchic “simulated democracy”, which in turn gives way to the rise of authoritarianism—at which point agitation for reform begins anew, and the cycle “resets”. Ukrainian democracy, as Poroshenko and Saakashvili’s clash vividly illustrates, has not been backsliding so much as bouncing back and forth between similarly troubled states.
As another writer on this blog has suggested, Poroshenko’s attacks on Saakashvili seem a clear case of “selective justice”—despite his disruptive tactics, the only crime Saakashvili has committed is standing up to the existing regime. Poroshenko’s actions here smack of the same creeping authoritarianism that has seemingly infected democracies worldwide. But at the same time, we must ask if what is happening here really constitutes a new and significant threat to Ukrainian democracy. To do this, we must place recent worrisome events in Ukraine’s larger troubled history.
Under Yanukovych, Ukrainian democracy entered a devastating period of backsliding, but the political landscape has mostly stabilized since then. In 2013, Freedom House reports, Yanukovych secured a seven-year prison sentence for his former Presidential opponent. Indeed, Yanukovych was responsible for a litany of anti-democratic sins, including election fraud, media censorship, and manipulation of the judiciary. Meanwhile, the entrenched challenges facing Ukrainian democracy—predominantly corruption and weak institutions—have remained largely unchanged between regimes.
In light of this larger picture, we would do better to consider Poroshenko’s actions more as part and parcel of an unfortunate post-Yanukovych status quo and less as a harbinger of further democratic downfall. The situation is in dire need of improvement, but it is not nearly as dire as it could be.
IMAGE: Kiev cityscape, from https://www.goodfreephotos.com/ukraine/kiev/cityscape-view-of-kiev-ukraine.jpg.php
image in the public domain.