Democracy, Step by Step

Democracy, Step by Step

It is clear why the US wants Ukraine’s reforms to succeed.  The country’s position between Western Europe and Russia makes it the largest gas transit country in Europe.  It possesses some of the world’s largest deposits of coal and uranium...

This week, Washington DC hosts Ukraine’s parliamentary opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.  It will be the first trip to the US in almost 10 years for the woman dubbed “The Orange Princess” during her country’s Orange Revolution in 2004.  And it comes at a time when US officials have questions about Ukraine’s direction and commitment to long-term cooperation.

Thanks to progress since 2004, Ukraine is the only country in the former Soviet Union with true political competition and a respected, powerful parliamentary opposition leader.  At a time when so many “transitions to democracy” throughout the world are floundering, Ukraine remains a source of guarded optimism with the potential to positively impact the former Soviet region.  Nevertheless, recently, the country’s reforms largely have stalled.

Primarily for this reason, Tymoshenko’s schedule is anticipated to include meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as with leaders of the Republican and Democratic Parties.  These meetings are planned despite the fact that, as opposition leader, Tymoshenko holds no recognized state position. 

Officials emphasize that the meetings are designed to discuss Ukraine’s democratic reforms.  They worry that the country President George Bush called “an example of democracy for people worldwide” may be starting to falter.

To be sure, Ukraine’s democratic transition has been more painful than originally hoped.   President Viktor Yushchenko was unable to capitalize on his spectacular Orange Revolution victory.  A series of political missteps allowed Yushchenko’s defeated presidential and revolution opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, to regroup.  These missteps included the decision to dismiss Prime Minister Tymoshenko, thus sending her into opposition. 

Yanukovych faired well in parliamentary elections, used the division between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to become Prime Minister, and then consolidated his power at the expense of Yushchenko.  The man pilloried as a “bandit” during the revolution is now arguably the most powerful person in the country.  

Prime Minister Yanukovych has used this power to reverse Yushchenko’s drive toward NATO and to slow the country’s movement toward the EU.    Most reform plans have been forgotten.  The international community has responded with disappointment.

But, while most who experienced Ukraine’s Orange Revolution anticipated a quicker transition, should we really be surprised that it hasn’t happened?

As the US has painfully witnessed in the last several years, democracies are not created with the snap of a finger.  Their development depends on the education and experience of not only the people of a country, but also their leaders.  

Ukraine’s leaders are products of the Soviet Union.  They grew up with no access to independent media, no exposure to other cultures, no civics lessons on democracy.  A vote meant nothing.  Choice and personal responsibility were rare and “order” was paramount. 

Despite their experience, these leaders suddenly have been asked to grasp the intricacies of democratic governance.  No, it is not a surprise that there have been fits and starts.  It is, in fact, impressive that progress occurs at all.

Tymoshenko’s visit is designed to underscore that, although Ukraine is involved in what she calls “a very deep transition,” its people support reform and closer relations with the West.   Her top foreign policy advisor, Hryhoriy Nemyria, emphasizes the bloc’s support for EU membership and Euro-Atlantic integration, and notes that the united opposition is sponsoring a number of domestic economic reforms based on Western principles.  

It is clear why the US wants Ukraine’s reforms to succeed.  The country’s position between Western Europe and Russia makes it the largest gas transit country in Europe.  It possesses some of the world’s largest deposits of coal and uranium, and it is one of the top eight arms exporters in the world.  Even more, its example in the region is important.

And in fact, the country has changed.  Free elections were held.  Journalists, while still struggling, regularly criticize politicians.  Civil society is growing.  And the parliament includes an opposition bloc that has refused to be co-opted while controlling 200 of 450 seats. 

Of course, Ukraine’s transition has far to go.  But the country’s new diverse political life – symbolized by Tymoshenko’s visit – offers a large measure of hope.  In contrast to so many areas of the world today, in Ukraine, although the road to democracy isn’t smooth, it just may be passable.  

 

By Tammy Lynch

 

Senior Fellow

Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy

Boston University, USA

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