Ukraine in the Making

Carlo Gavatorta

EuroMaidan in Kiev, 1 December 2013. Source: Ilya via Wikimedia Commons

A little over a year from the start of the protests in the Ukrainian capital’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), the Ukraine crisis has not yet ended. The country is still torn between East and West in a fight against pro-Russian Rebel forces and, with the Crimean peninsula now far long annexed to the Russian Federation, the status quo is still the same and conflict does not seem to stop any time soon.

The recent revolution however was not just struggle for nothing, as the Orange Revolution might have seemed in 2004. This event differed significantly from the previous civil uprising in the sense that it might have finally set the country on the path towards a more democratic and transparent political system. Ukraine might finally become part of Europe and the West, the outcome the EuroMaidan protesters were dreaming of.

The EuroMaidan revolution, even more than the Orange Revolution, is confirming evidence of the theory[1] that democratic change is brought by coordinated mass action and a pressing civil society more than a game between elites with forced negotiations. The relatively higher success of the 2013 revolution compared to the one in 2004 is the result of a growing sentiment of democratic change within a society that is fed-up with a corrupt and authoritarian government, more than an organisation of weak opposition political parties wanting to turn around the ruling regime.

The new established government led by president Petro Poroshenko and his ally Vitaly Klitschko, mayor of Kiev, are a good start over for Ukrainian politics. Poroshenko is not new to the political scene, however he can be a good face for a new beginning as he was not an official presidential candidate until the outbreak of the revolution and has also won by a wide margin. Most importantly, however, is the new wave of younger politicians who are pushing to bring in a new way of doing politics, disassociated from major oligarchs and looking directly for voters’ support, engaging with those same civic groups that started the protests. Unlike in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, when then president Viktor Yushchenko failed to bring in substantial reforms leading to a takeover by Yanukovich in 2010, now civic initiatives are playing a major role in researching and drafting legislation and pushing for its implementation. “Zero tolerance for corruption”[2] is the motto now, however it will be hard to bring about full-fledged reforms with a parliament still filled with faces associated with the previous regime.

Ukraine, unlike other Central and Eastern European former Soviet countries, still has to engage in a lot of work to move towards a more transparent and accountable political system. Ever since its independence the country has been torn apart by the divide between East and West. A divide which has constantly been fomented by Russian actions, earlier with Moscow’s support for Kuchma’s government during the Orange Revolution, and later with unilateral support for Yanukovich’s campaign strategies that sought to accentuate ethnic and identity divisions between east and west.

However, Ukraine can benefit from the fact that its economic elites, the oligarchs, are not as united as they are in Russia. Kuchma and Yanukovich’s semi authocratic regimes did not control or own major parts of the Ukrainian economy and therefore did not possess the same power and control as their Russian counterpart does. This was very beneficial for a regime change and will keep being so during the current democratisation process. Moreover, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the aggression from pro-Russian separatists in the east seem to have had an adverse effect on the Ukrainian people, uniting them even more than before. The majority of Ukrainians do want greater democracy and, as they have shown, they are willing to fight for it.

Ukraine has the potential to become a wealthy country and converge with Western Europe. Nonetheless, it has not yet established those institutions needed to benefit fully from its potential. The Ukrainian political apparatus is still overly influenced by the old Soviet system and it has been looking to Russia too much and for too long since its independence. Kuchma’s attempts to establish a “managed democracy”[3] similar to Putin’s in Russia – formal democratic practices, but informal control of all political institutions – set back the country in achieving transition to a liberal democracy over the past 20 years.

During Soviet times, Ukraine was closely controlled by the centralised power of the Soviet Union and most importantly all Ukrainian pre-Soviet legislation had been abolished, leaving no memory of law and public administration prior to the communist era. The inexistent experience of any form of democratic governance greatly affected the process of transition consequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union. This created difficulties in reforming political and economic institutions needed to create a healthy environment for economic growth and development. Consequently, the result was a political scene captured by new elites coming out of the regime breakdown who have been seeking personal interests at the expense of the larger society. These new political elites brought with them the good old habits of corruption, establishing a business environment overwhelmed with regulations and where it does not pay to behave civically.

In their cry for change the EuroMaidan protesters declared they finally have had enough of a corrupt authoritarian system and are ready to move towards a country more similar to a European state rather than Russia. Determinant for the future reconstruction of the country will be the Ukrainian government’s commitment to reform essential political and economic institutions without letting Moscow’s intrusions in the east stall the process.

The involvement of civil society will be an essential element of the democratisation process in Ukraine. Source: Nessa Gnatoush via Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J.A. (2006) Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Diuk, N. (2014) Finding Ukraine, Journal of Democracy, vol.25(3), pp.83-89.

[3] McFaul, M. (2007) Ukraine Imports Democracy: External Influences on the Orange Revolution, International Security, vol.32(2), pp.45-83.

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