Ukraine prides itself with three revolutions – 1991 independence from Russia, 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan. These historical junctures are inextricably linked to Ukraine’s democratic consolidation on two accounts – transition to democracy and the uncertain autonomy from Russia’s omnipresence in Ukraine’s internal affairs. The revolutions demonstrate that certain degrees of civil liberties as well as freedoms of political expression and association are enjoyed by Ukrainians, albeit on a limited rule of law basis. The democratization of post-Soviet political and economic institutions including the creation of its 1996 Constitution, the emergence of civil society and non-aligned media have been pivotal push factors for democratic consolidation.
The backdrop of Russia’s stubborn intervention in post-Soviet Ukraine does not just concern Putin’s earnest annexation of Crimea. The intertwined histories of Ukraine and Russia are not only a question of identity owed to the impetus of common Slavic ethnicity and Cyrillic alphabet but also the shared unfolding of each other’s history. Russia is fully aware of Ukraine’s strategic and historical importance particularly of the Black Sea, ethnic affinity of Ukraine’s east inhabitants and the unending tension created by the pro-Russian portion of the population. Ukraine, on the other hand, yearns to escape the perennial Russian shadow.
Understanding Ukrainian democratic transitions and its outcomes, whether consolidation or otherwise, requires an appreciation of the almost inseparable impact of Moscow on Ukrainian political development and national identity. Leaving aside the warm nostalgia of comradeship, those who are working for the country’s independence and democracy should recognize Russia’s hegemony as not an insurmountable factor to democracy. While waiting for countervailing forces and processes, Ukrainians especially the young and educated forming part of the political elites and civil society should turn to institutions, encourage respect for democratic norms and seek an alternative to balance Russia.
Russia’s Historic and Geopolitical Long Shadow
The interest on Ukraine’s democratic prospects and stability has both domestic and international dimensions. Post-Soviet Ukraine has seen the country’s experimentation with self-determination and self-government underpinned by liberal democratic values of social justice, political rights and civil liberties. The weakening of Soviet empire brought to the fore the nationalist geist and the consensus of territorial integrity as the articulation of Ukraine’s capacity for self-rule. Leaders before Mikhail Gorbachev and the associated systemic conditions surrounding the loosening of Russia’s grip ensured, through various contrivances, that Ukraine remains dependent on Moscow.
Ukraine’s ongoing democratic aspirations contends with the fact that Russia has not fully given up on imperialism intensified by Putin’s ambitions, the energy security card and the resulting divisiveness in the country’s political landscape. These factors have been made more complex and obvious by Ukraine’s resolute preference to join the EU and be formally integrated with the rest of Europe as well as the reactive policy of Russia to annex Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. A self-fulfilling situation that Russia’s Putin do not dare to imagine.
The country’s gains in experiencing revolutions – democratization and reforms have been constrained for the most part by the historical and political tug of war between Russia and Ukraine. Showing no signs of slackening, Ukraine’s way of neutralizing this challenge is to push for the EU membership and seek the support of powerful countries. Timothy Snyder, a historian specializing in the history of Eastern Europe, warns that too much attention on geopolitics is never going to be good for a Ukraine aiming for coherent domestic policies.
Incipient Democratic Institutions
Inconsistent political development and institutional volatility characterize Ukraine’s post-Soviet democratic transition. In his book, “Two Roads Diverge,” Hartwell argues that beginning with the Kuchma administration, the absence of executive constraints have enabled its presidents to engage in constitutional vacillations characterized by the government’s indecisiveness with Russia as well as the feebleness of institutions against state levers threatening to control media and curtail civil society.
The incipient democratic institutions of Ukraine prove to be weak against abuses of almost all elected Ukrainian presidents. Post-independence Ukraine bears the concentration of tremendous power in one person where concomitant problems of endangering civil rights and political liberties, imperiling national and local institutions, eroding the rule of law and mainstreaming patron-client relations come as expected side-effects. The power vertical allows for executive aggrandizement manifested through strategic maneuver of electoral procedures, manipulation of the Constitution for political retribution and pressuring the already weakened judicial independence.
Regressive institutional policies, existing within the framework of intimidation and violence enable the political maneuvers of leaders and parliamentary members. Ukraine’s way out of this conundrum is to lessen the focus on geopolitics and the role of Russia in obstructing total Ukrainian autonomy. Civil society should organize their activism around how the current political set-up can be used to provide for executive constraints. This approach is useful when Russia decides to install in Ukraine another pro-Russian president reminiscent of Yanukovych or to when trying to neutralize the bickering among the wannabe Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.
Financial-Political Group – Ukraine’s Oligarchies
As in Russia, Ukraine also has its own set of oligarchies in Kiev and the rest of the country. Leonid Kravchuck learned the downside of letting up the influence and activities of Ukrainian oligarchs in witnessing economic chaos and experiencing his own electoral defeat against Leonid Kuchma. However, in Ukraine and this is true for other countries, oligarchs are widely blamed for obstructing economic reforms as well as impeding political liberalization permitted by the country’s institutional weaknesses and the underlying ethnic and class divisions.
Tymoshenko’s string of going in and out of jail and recently Poroshenko, Ukraine’s current president and Saakashvili, an opposition figure have linked up the oligarchies with occupying positions of power and corruption. Condoleeza Rice observes that it has become convenient for Ukrainian leaders and politicians to throw corruption charges against and oust an incumbent by sparking protests among Ukrainians. Neutralizing this is an obviously elusive feat but the way out is to establish consensus among the oligarchs and the masses that a limited democracy produced by the oligarchic structures in Ukraine portend another revolutionary upset.
In a country where oligarchies or financial-political groups prevail in politics and are part of the reason for the volatile and retrograding democratic trends, can populism, of anti-pluralist or anti-elitist variety be used for political leverage? If the oligarchies, given the inimical consequences of institutions having faulty constraining capacity on the power vertical, are able to assert their ‘authenticity’ as well as their moral and exclusive representation of the ‘real Ukrainian people,’ how can a prioritization of a singular common good be calculated against an already polarizing political milieu? Populism may not be in itself a foremost threat to Ukrainian democratic consolidation but one has to analyze its interaction with the country’s “embryonic notion of nationalism and a murky definition of the other.” Both are essential to Ukrainian pernicious polarization and political/economic exclusion.
How will Ukraine address path dependent democratic erosion? How should its western partners and citizens raise the cost of authoritarian resilience given institutional conditions and Russia’s presence installed in Crimea and the Donbass? Path dependent analysis shows that historic reliance of Ukraine on Russia generates unintended consequences for democratic consolidation. The country has democratic institutions but its idealized functioning cannot be separated from the larger polarizing, volatile, retrograding and heavily intervened political milieu.