The Orange Revolution in 2004 showed Ukraine’s longing for democracy with massive peaceful demonstrations which prevailed against attempts to thwart a democratic election (Dickinson 2020). Ukraine has been a hybrid regime, one with democratic features and an authoritarian streak left over from its Soviet Union past. If a full-blown attempt at authoritarianism was pursued, the resistance would be massive (Matsiyevsky 2021).
As Chenoweth & Stephan (2013) discuss, nonviolent protest movements like the Orange Revolution have higher success rates than violent movements. Why is that? Nonviolent movements have a lower barrier to participation which helps to facilitate successful tactics including enhanced resilience, better chances of tactical innovation, expanded civil disruption and shifts in loyalty including the opposition’s forces (Chenoweth & Stephan 2013). Because they can get much more participation, nonviolent movements are a superior strategy over violent movements (Chenoweth & Stephan 2013). Ukraine’s most potent protection from slipping completely into competitive authoritarianism is the desire of its people for a democratic Ukraine (Dickinson 2020).
The Maidan protest movement began in November of 2013 and was instigated by the Ukrainian government’s decision to not sign an agreement of association with the European Union. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych instead chose closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. The public outrage and protests began and snowballed into the demand for President Viktor Yanukovych and his government to resign. The protests were motivated by the perceived government corruption, abuse of power and violation of human rights. As a result, a political agreement was reached and signed in February of 2014 with Yanukovych and his government then fleeing Ukraine. The EU agreement was signed and the Crimean crisis occurred. The Crimean Parliament voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Kyiv rejected this action along with the West. The agreement, pressure from political protest, and the Crimean crisis have worked to keep the Ukrainian government from further Russian influence.
One of the primary political cleavages that persist in Ukraine is between pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian identities (Olteanu, Jaitner and Spöri, 2018). The constant threat of conflict with Russia has helped to forge a Ukrainian sense of identity. This sense of collective identity helps to protect against the type of schism in national identity which makes democracies vulnerable (McCoy et. al. 2018). The constant flow of disinformation from Russia, meant to disrupt and doom Ukrainian democracy, highlights and hardens pro-Ukrainians, uniting them and overriding other potential divisions (Dickinson 2020). This type of polarization is actually helpful in mobilizing political action and participation and strengthens democracy (McCoy et al 2018).
Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected in April of 2019 as the President of Ukraine after a career as a writer/actor and producer who famously played a school teacher thrust into being elected president. Art imitated life in this instance, and Zelensky was elected in a landslide with zero political experience. His tenure is also following a pattern that has repeated in Ukrainian politics: a populist reformer elected to improve corruption and facilitate good governance only to drift somewhat towards competitive authoritarianism. Matsiyevsky (2021) argues that Ukrainians do not see the incompatibility between the preference of strong leaders and democracy. Ukraine has very low demand for anti-system and far right leaders in contrast to the rise of such parties in the West (Terzyan 2020).
Ukraine’s economic challenges limit the popularity of its leaders. This actually helps guard against an elected populist from becoming an autocrat, limiting their ability to consolidate too much power (Matsiyevsky 2021). It is not uncommon for Ukrainian leaders to consolidate their power, but not enough to become an autocrat. Bolstered by the financial aid of the West, Ukraine’s relationship with Western countries also force it to adopt anti-corruption measures. This keeps Ukraine from slipping into authoritarianism even if it isn’t quite enough to stamp out the vestiges of Soviet Union influences in its political system (Matsiyevsky 2021).
Although the spirit of democracy is alive in the people, other aspects of Ukrainian politics and institutions are detrimental to the health of democracy. There is a tolerance for informal governance and endemic corruption with the influence of oligarchs (Matsiyevsky 2021). When combined with weak institutions and young democracy, there are significant political and cultural obstacles for democracy to overcome.
Kim Lane Scheppele (2013) explains that the new form of authoritarianism, using the trappings of democracy in order to kill democracy with a thousand cuts, isn’t overt but subtle (Scheppele 2013). This has occurred in Hungary, with Viktor Orban and his party winning democratic elections before turning Hungary into a frankenstate. Unlike Hungary, Ukraine has already resisted two attempts at democratization: under the leadership of Kravchuck in 1991-1994 and Yushchenko in 2004 as well as two attempts at authoritarianism: Under the leadership of Kuchma in 1994-2001 and Yanukovych in 2004/2013 (Matsiyevsky 2021).
The non-violent protest movement in Ukraine not only has had success because of broad participation, but nonviolent movements are the most likely route to achieve a democratic outcome (Chenoweth & Stephan 2013). Though Ukraine has several impediments towards complete democratic consolidation, the strong opinion in favor of democracy of the majority keeps Ukraine from backsliding into complete authoritarianism (Terzyan 2020).
Atlantic Council. 2021. Overcoming polarization in Ukraine. [online] Available at: <https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/event/overcoming-polarization-in-ukraine/> [Accessed 16 November 2021].
Chenoweth, E. and Stephan, M., 2013. Why civil resistance works. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Dickinson, P., 2020. How Ukraine’s Orange Revolution shaped twenty-first century geopolitics. [online] Atlantic Council. Available at: <https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/how-ukraines-orange-revolution-shaped-twenty-first-century-geopolitics/> [Accessed 16 November 2021].
Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. Ukraine – The crisis in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/place/Ukraine/The-crisis-in-Crimea-and-eastern-Ukraine> [Accessed 30 November 2021].
Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. Ukraine – The Maidan protest movement. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/place/Ukraine/The-Maidan-protest-movement> [Accessed 21 November 2021].
Matsiyevsky, Y., 2020. Mixed values and societal constraints: why the request for a “strong hand” will not lead to authoritarianism in Ukraine. Sociology: Theory, Methods, Marketing, (stmm 2019 (4), pp.43-67.
Olteanu, T., Jaitner, F. and Spöri, T., 2018. Crises in the post-Soviet space.
Terzyan, A., 2020. Towards Democratic Consolidation? Ukraine After the Revolution of Dignity. Open Political Science, 3(1), pp.183-191.