Democracy is alive in Ukraine

About the author
Alexander Motyl is professor of political science and deputy director of the Center for Global Change and Governance at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

When Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yushchenko, sacked his government on 8 September – including his prime minister and former political ally, Yulia Tymoshenko – alarm bells went off and commentators spoke of the end of the “orange revolution”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Ukraine’s democratic government is in turmoil, Ukraine’s democratic system has never been healthier.

Alexander Motyl is professor of political science and deputy director of the Center for Global Change and Governance at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

Also by Alexander Motyl in openDemocracy, “How Ukrainians became citizens”
(25 November 2004)

This article was published at a moment when many commentators were predicting that the demonstrations in Kyiv (Kiev) would be crushed and Ukraine’s democratic wave defeated. In it the author wrote:

“(The) demonstrators … are no longer afraid of the authorities. They have nothing to lose, everything to gain, and they know that they will win.”

A brief glance at events in Ukraine since the tumultuous weeks of late 2004 – when protests against the fraudulent presidential election mushroomed into a mass civic movement for peaceful democratic transformation – sets the scene for understanding these latest developments.

The orange moment

The system of rule that took root under Yushchenko’s predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, was intrinsically decrepit and prone to decay. Political power was concentrated in a small clique that ignored the rule of law, controlled the media, and intimidated society while catering to the whims of powerful tycoons. Such a closed, clannish, corrupt, and incompetent regime could survive only as long as people were too fearful to question its legitimacy.

The regime’s edifice began to crack in 2000-2001, when Kuchma became implicated in the September 2000 abduction and beheading of a journalist, Georgii Gongadze. Secret tape recordings suggested that the president had ordered Gongadze’s killing. Just as disturbing, the tapes revealed Kuchma’s thuggish private side. The anti-Kuchma public protests that erupted soon thereafter showed just how odious the president had become for many Ukrainians.

When Kuchma’s prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, decided to run for president in 2004, that was the final straw for Ukrainians who longed to see their country become a normal, peaceable, democratic state. Kuchma’s criminal past, his acknowledged collaboration with the KGB, and his cloddish persona were now reinforced by an evident desire to make Ukraine a crony state in perpetuity.

Kuchma and Yanukovych, like tinpot authoritarians the world over, figured they could rig the presidential election without being held accountable. But after they engaged in exceptionally brazen cheating in two rounds of voting (31 October and 21 November 2004), the gathering democratic forces within Ukrainian society exploded in protest. Hundreds of thousands braved bitter cold for days, extending into weeks, to demand their democratic rights. The solemn Yushchenko and the fiery Tymoshenko led the demonstrators and came to embody the democratic values of what became known – following the colourful symbols, flags and banners adopted by the protestors – as the “orange revolution”.

The orange turning-point

Ukraine’s immediate transformation into a prosperous European state appeared to be assured when clean elections in January 2005 led to the inauguration of Viktor Yushchenko as president and the appointment of Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister. The unrealistic nature of that expectation was soon exposed.

Tymoshenko pursued a variety of populist policies that distorted the workings of the market. Privatisation was put on hold as the government endlessly reviewed past privatisations and attempted to reverse the most egregiously corrupt ones. The government coalition, which emerged on the basis of opposition to Kuchma, began to fracture as ministers squabbled over policy and areas of responsibility.

A series of damaging scandals – one involving the younger Yushchenko’s extravagant lifestyle – came to light. As finger-pointing escalated, Yushchenko’s chief-of-staff Olexander Zinchenko resigned on 4 September alleging corruption on the president’s team. After several days of deliberations, the president fired Tymoshenko and appointed his old ally, Yuri Yekhanurov – the governor of Dnipropetrovsk province and reputedly a technocrat – as acting prime minister.

The tussles will continue and probably intensify as parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2006 approach and all sides take to vigorous campaigning. Mud will be slung and deals will be cut, as politics goes into high gear. But as the prophets of doom bury the orange revolution, more sober observers may want to recall that vigorous debate and contestation, of the kind that characterise today’s Ukraine, are exactly what democracy is about.

Although Ukraine is hardly a mature and consolidated democracy, it is a radically different country today from what it was just one year ago. The orange revolution was not merely the replacement of one regime by a successor of the same kind, as some analysts have argued, but a real turning-point. It shifted Ukraine’s systemic trajectory – from an increasingly authoritarian direction to a substantially (if still imperfectly) democratic one.

Civil society and the media in today’s Ukraine are robust, open political debate has become the order of the day, transparency has increased, democratic institutions are functioning, the rule of law has improved marginally, and investigations into past misdeeds (such as the killing of Giorgii Gongadze) are proceeding.

Ukraine remains an economically impoverished and excessively corrupt country – and political turmoil may or may not facilitate reform – but it is anything but an authoritarian state with a dictatorial leader and a passive population, as in Russia. Indeed, the very fact that severe, ongoing criticism of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko is itself being freely expressed in the media, and by civil society groups, students, and political activists attests to the consolidation of democratic norms and behaviour.

The orange effect

The true importance of the orange revolution is not that it changed the Ukrainian government, but that it changed Ukraine in four substantial ways.

First, the revolution galvanised Ukraine’s disparate opposition forces and moulded them into a civil society based on a multiplicity of non-governmental organisations, student groups, churches, businesses, and intellectuals. Although the world’s attention was focused on the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Kyiv’s (Kiev’s) streets, no less important were the equally large numbers demonstrating for democracy in all of Ukraine’s cities. When the upheaval ended at the end of 2004, on the eve of free elections, there could be no doubt that Ukraine possessed a democratic citizenry willing to fight, stubbornly and peacefully, for its rights.

Also on Ukraine’s orange revolution in openDemocracy:

Marek Matraszek, “Ukraine, Poland, and a free world” (December 2004)

Ivan Krastev, “Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction” (December 2004)

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Second, as significant as civil society’s upheaval was the fact that all of Ukraine’s political institutions – the presidency, the parliament, the supreme court, and the political parties – played by the democratic rules of the game throughout the crisis. Even Yanukovych, after losing the presidential run-off of 27 December, proceeded to challenge Yushchenko’s victory in the central election commission and the supreme court. Ukraine had acquired formally democratic rules of the game under Kuchma, but it became clear during the revolution that these rules had stuck and were beginning to function as real democratic institutions.

Third, for huge numbers of Ukraine’s young people the orange revolution was a formative experience, comparable to 1968 in the United States, France, and Germany or 1989 in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Just as the mass marches and peace demonstrations of these two momentous years transformed the experience and sense of possibility of an entire generation, so too the orange revolution will shape an entire generation of young Ukrainians, and through them affect the culture and change the habits, thinking, and mentality of millions of their fellow-citizens.

Fourth, for the Ukrainian population in general, the orange revolution created a national myth – a defining moment that establishes a set of ideals against which all political actions can be measured. Like 1776 for Americans, 1789 for the French, and 1980 for Poles, 2004 represents a rupture with the past and a breakthrough to a new future for Ukraine’s people.

For the first time in modern Ukraine’s history, Ukrainian politicians can be held up to an unconditionally progressive standard. By accusing Yushchenko and Tymoshenko of betraying the orange revolution, critics are also affirming the integrity of the process and the validity of the national myth; so too, critics of their successors will measure their performance in light of the revolution’s ideal.

The orange legacy

This may be the orange revolution’s single most important legacy: the transformation of a passive populace into a self-conscious citizenry. Ukraine’s population has become empowered, and it will not, short of a totalitarian crackdown by a tyrant, be disempowered – regardless of who its elected leaders are and what they do or fail to do.

Thus Ukraine’s future is bright even in the light of current political travails. The country will be democratic and, over time, increasingly transparent – and transparency is the best long-term antidote to corruption. The country will also be increasingly prosperous, because only a self-confident citizenry has the capacity to pursue economic opportunity and enrich itself as it sees fit. The way ahead will involve many other political and economic crises; but for democratic Ukraine there is no going back.