In a recent article published by The Washington Post, the author lays out potential problems with an already problematic situation in Ukraine, pointing to a recent report from Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank that tracks democracy around the world. “This recent report found that only six of 29 countries spanning from Central Europe to Central Asia managed to maintain a “consolidated” democracy, while most others drifted towards authoritarianism or a bleak “gray zone” where the trappings of democracy truss up illiberal or autocratic political project.” The report shows that Russia’s sphere of influence in the region has been widespread and objectively problematic for liberal democracy. Freedom House’s report marked the 18th consecutive year of democratic decline in the region, a trendline that follows suit, albeit at a higher rate, to democratic decline in the world.”
Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union decades ago, ripples of authoritarianism still plague the region, most notably in the way certain countries in Russia’s orbit conduct their elections. In Russia’s most recent parliamentary elections, deceitful tactics are implemented to ensure that Putin’s party wins, and wins big. A wide variety of tactics are used in Russian elections to ensure that Putin’s party wins, including Putin-backed candidates that look similar to and have similar names to opposition party candidates. From a New York Times article, “among the candidates voters will choose from in one St. Petersburg district are three men named Boris Vishnevsky, only one of whom is the real opposition politician.” In addition to these deceitful tactics, vote tabulation in Russia is also a ‘game’. Poll workers in voting precincts across Russia have contests to see which areas will have the most votes for Putin-backed candidates. The potential expansion of Russian authoritarianism into Ukraine and other countries in the former Soviet-sphere would be a huge loss for liberal democracies throughout the region and the world.
When Putin was first inaugurated in 2000, he didn’t take long to roll-back democratic processes within the federal government. As Kathryn Stoner-Weiss wrote in “Comparing Oranges and Apples: The Internal and External Dimensions of Russia’s Turn away from Democracy”, “Six days after he was first inaugurated, Putin signed his first decree and proposed a set of bills, all of them aimed, as he stated, at ‘strengthening vertical power.’ They served as the beginning of a profound restructuring of Russia’s federal composition, or, put another way, as the beginning of the dismantling of the country’s democratic structures.” Putin went on to sign a bill to replace elected members of the upper house of the parliament with appointed ones. Putin’s power grab was immediate and went unchecked. When he was bound by constitutional term limits, he simply changed the constitution. If Russia were to take control of Ukraine, it would be expected that a similar form of governance would be enacted there, marking the fall of another liberal democracy in the world. If Russia is successful in its goals of a complete surrender of the Ukrainian government, what realistically would stop the power-obsessed Putin from stopping there?
This is where academics, political theorists, and enjoyers of democracy start to fret. A Russian-controlled Ukraine would inevitably come with democratic backsliding, including voter fraud, constitutional amendments expanding executive powers, and the dissolving of legislative checks on the executive. In a recent interview, Francis Fukuyama, a well-known political theorist that specializes in democracies, said that “The War in Ukraine impacts the American people in the sense that, if Vladimir Putin succeeds, then such people here – those anti-democratic forces – will succeed as well. I believe they actually pose a real and present danger to American democracy, and if they’re not beaten back we could be facing a serious constitutional crisis in this country by 2024.” It is hard to tell exactly what the consequences of a Russian-controlled Ukraine would entail for liberal democracies across the world, but it can only be negative. As time has shown, Putin is power hungry, and if successful in conquering Ukraine with no pushback from the world, it’s reasonable to suggest he wouldn’t stop there.