Ukraine and the shaky road to democracy


The latest development in Ukraine has been another round of negotiations between representatives of the Ukrainian government and the figureheads of the opposition movement. Yet, with an incoherent opposition and an anti-Yanukovych sentiment prevailing, it is unlikely that the negotiations will be fruitful any time soon. In fact, it’s possible that President Yanukovych won’t leave office until he is pushed out, damaging Ukraine’s prospects for genuine democracy in the ex-Soviet state.

Last week, the Ukrainian Parliament agreed to repeal the hated laws of January 16th, which significantly limited citizens’ freedoms and right to protest, including a ban on unauthorised tents in public areas. President Yanukovych has also given his consent to an amnesty that will free all those who have been detained for taking part in the protests on the condition that the places which have been occupied are cleared, including Independence Square (this condition has not been met). The current government of Mykola Azarov has resigned following these agreements and two ministerial positions have been offered to opposition leaders, which they have so far declined. Clearly, Yanukovych is in the mood to compromise, but the opposition have expressed unwillingness to settle for his limited offerings.

The next presidential elections are not scheduled until March 2015, but the opposition, known as ‘Euromaiden’, want to see the immediate resignation of Yanukovych before they will be satisfied. The possibility of a kind of coalition government between Yanukovych and the opposition, as they have been offered, is understandably unappealing, considering Yanukovych’s taste for autonomous decision-making. Euromaiden’s ‘leaders’ are an unlikely bunch: a boxer-turned politician, Vitali Klitschko, of the ‘Punch’ party; a nationalist, Oleh Tyahnybok, of the ‘Freedom’ party; and the so far over-looked but most politically credible candidate, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, of the ‘Fatherland’ party, whose real leader and former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is currently in jail.

The three political figures formed a united opposition after the October 2012 parliamentary elections but who knows how ‘united’ this trio will prove if Yanukovych does step down and the presidency is put up for grabs.

There is also a sense of déjà vu about the protests, after the so-called ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004. This second round of serious demonstrations against Yanukovych suggests that the political situation in Ukraine cannot be solved unless Yanukovych disappears from the scene and they start again with a clean slate. This may mean yet another constitution (there was a new one in 2004 but this has been repeatedly tampered with by Yanukovych) that clearly sets out Ukraine’s position with regards to the EU and Russia.

But will this be enough? After the electoral results were challenged in 2004 and Yuschenko became president, Yanukovych won again in 2010 in a round of elections which were deemed “free and fair” by the Central Electoral Commission. This begs the question that, if Yanukovych is removed from power now, will he be voted in again in a few years’ time?

There is thus a new dimension to understanding the 2004 ‘revolution’, which has previously been viewed as part of the ‘fourth wave’ of democratisation in ex-Soviet Union states. The current situation demonstrates the inaccuracies of the ‘transition paradigm’, which considers countries that overthrow their authoritarian leaders to be on a natural path to democracy. The election of Yanukovych in 2010 and now the discontent with his leadership shows that the road to democracy is never straightforward. Even more pertinently, ‘democracy’ is not forcibly overthrowing your leader every time you’re unhappy with them, but letting him finish his democratic term and then voting for somebody else. It’s a waiting game and, in first past the post systems, usually means the minority (even if that is 40% of the population) does not get what it wants. Similarly, being an ‘elected leader’ requires being responsive to the people and not acting autonomously. Ukraine clearly needs deep structural changes before this crisis can be rectified.

So, what’s next in the near future?  The big problem with leaders who tend towards repressive rule is that they generally believe that they are right and know what’s best for the ‘whole country’. It’s very difficult to convince them that capitulating to what they consider to be the ‘mob’ is going to be best in the long run. What’s more, a single opposition leader acting as the mouthpiece of ‘Euromaiden’ is currently absent, so it’s difficult to predict who would be able to steer Ukraine towards stability. From the reaction to negotiations, however, it seems that it cannot be Yanukovych.


PHOTO/Ivan Bandura


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