09 July, 2016


Dr Nicholas Ross Smith, University of Auckland (New Zealand) explores internal and external obstacles to achieving a functioning liberal democracy in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s democratisation efforts to date

It has been a tumultuous 24 months for Ukraine’s government. Numerous scandals have cast serious doubts over Poroshenko’s stated objective at his presidential inauguration in 2014 to undertake democratic reform and fight corruption. While the democracy observation organisation Freedom House credited Ukraine with making “some progress on the huge range of reforms Ukraine requires to become a fully democratic state”, these gains have been rendered practically useless by ongoing issues with corruption and the rule of law.

Of course, this is probably not the most surprising outcome for anyone who has any knowledge of Ukraine’s democratisation efforts since its independence in 1991, which, in its totality, represents 25 years of numerous false promises regarding democracy and democratisation. In a forthcoming book chapter – to be published in a volume titled ‘A Quarter Century of Postcommunism Assessed’ (with Palgrave MacMillan and edited by Graeme Gill,Milenko Petrovic, and Steven Fish) – I place the blame for Ukraine’s inability to democratise on a key internal and a key external impediment.

In truth, Ukraine faces numerous internal obstacles to achieving a functioning liberal democracy. Ukraine’s economy, which was significantly hit during the 2008 global financial crisis, has more recently taken a further turn for the worse with the ongoing Ukraine crisis and destruction of the Donbass region, its industrial heartland. Thus, not only is Ukraine’s economic outlook dire (a 12% drop occurred in 2015), inequality is also on the rise (inflation reached 44% for 2015), both of which do not bode well for its democratisation prospects (RT, 2015). Unsurprisingly, after numerous failed democratic movements, political apathy amongst average Ukrainians is growing, and few seem genuinely convinced of an achievable democratic future for Ukraine.

However, while the aforementioned issues are problematic and certainly need addressing, if successful democratisation is to be achieved the biggest internal hurdle is undoubtedly rectifying the role of elites in Ukrainian politics. According to the transition argument, democracy is not “a question of waiting for economic conditions to mature or the political struggles unleashed by economic change to be won,” but rather is the outcome of intentional actions pursued by elites. In the context of the transitions that have occurred in the independent states that emerged from the Soviet Union’s collapse, all of which have ostensibly attempted some level of democratisation, the role of elites has been important as to whether democracy has occurred or not.

Popular mobilisations demanding democracy, such as what occurred at the fall of the Soviet Union or more recently in the Colour Revolutions or in Ukraine in 2014, have often grabbed the headlines. However, Henry Hale argues thatin the majority of post-Soviet states, “political contestation is at root an elite affair where powerful groups compete to manipulate mass opinion through biased media and machine politics.” Thus, elites emerge as arguably the most important variable when understanding the democratisation trajectories of post-Soviet states.

The influence of elites on Ukraine’s politics and governance in its two and a half decades since independence has been significant. Initially, in the early years of independence under the first president Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian political elite was made up mostly of former high-ranking figures from the Communist apparatus. However, due to wide-ranging economic reforms, especially privatisation, implemented when Leonid Kuchma came to power in 1994, a new breed of elite emerged in Ukraine: oligarchs.

The term oligarch, in this context, refers to business magnates who acquired huge amounts of wealth, often through criminal connections or activities, during the privatisation process. The rise of oligarchs, occurring at a time when economic and political transitions were failing, was a negative development for democracy. Beyond the obvious problems with triggering rising corruption (Transparency International documented worsening perceptions of corruption in Ukraine), Paul Kubiček argues that the rise of oligarchs undermined the potentially positive impact of trade unions which could have reverted the “overcentralisation of authority and lack of checks on both political and economic power.”

Despite the reduction of corruption being the key message of the Orange Revolution in late 2004 and, more recently, of the 2014 revolution, neither movements have been able to break the pervasive grip of oligarchs on Ukrainian politics. Unlike long periods of Kuchma’s presidency, or Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia, it is apparent that the“oligarchisation of power” has reached a point where the power of the President is impotent in the face of oligarchic interests. Sadly, the momentum generated by the EuroMaidan movement seems to have been co-opted by Poroshenko and his oligarchic supporters as zero of the key grassroots figures in that movement were represented in positions of real power in the new regime. Thus, despite promises to de-oligarchise Ukrainian politics, Poroshenko’s initial period in power illustrates that history is once again repeating itself in Ukraine.

Ultimately, as Henry Hale observed during the Orange Revolution, the current political system in Ukraine, which has not been significantly altered in design by the ongoing Ukraine crisis to date, means that rather than moving towards democracy or autocracy, power will merely perpetually vacillate between competing elite groups, creatingcycles of ‘regime behaviour’. Thus, breaking this embedded system which serves oligarchic interests appears to be the key challenge impeding Ukraine’s prospects for achieving greater democratisation from within. Indeed, without significant alteration of the oligarchs grip on power, not matter what happens economically or in other areas of democratisation a Western-style democracy is largely impossible.

The external dimension of Ukraine’s democratisation challenges creates a further impediment to successful democratisation. The emergence of regime promotion competition between the EU, promoting a Western-style multiparty democracy, and Russia, promoting an illiberal form of democracy (sovereign democracy), has generated a geopolitical setting in Ukraine which heavily constrains the potential external diffusion of democracy. While the jury is out as to whether democracy via diffusion occurs, particularly after the failed Arab Spring and Colour Revolution waves, the role of external democracy (or autocracy) promoters is still an important variable to consider in the context of Ukraine’s regime developments. Crudely, both democracy and autocracy promotion strategies attempt to, in part, induce their preferred regime by using the mechanism of conditionality; appealing directly to strategic calculations of political elites in a target state. Thus, the external dimension of democratisation is inextricably connected to the internal setting, particularly regarding the role of elites in the target state.

In the context of Ukraine, it was not until the events of the Orange Revolution that it became an explicit target state for both democratic and autocratic promotion from outsiders. Preceding the Orange Revolution, Europe’s geopolitical setting changed significantly in 2004 with the enlargement of the EU eastwards which coincided with a re-assertiveness of Russia in its near abroad, generating a corridor of states between the two; a shared neighbourhood of Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. Subsequently, when the Orange Revolution materialised in late 2004, in this newly charged geopolitical setting of Eastern Europe both the EU and Russia demonstrated an explicit interest in the regime outcome in Ukraine. The EU played an important role (in conjunction with the United States) in securing a re-run of the election while proactively funding pro-Yushchenko NGOs in order to support the Orange revolutionaries secure power. Conversely, Russia strongly backed Yanukovych as its preferred presidential candidate with Russian Prime Minister Putin calling the Orange Revolution “unconstitutional” while stating that “a repeat of the second round would yield nothing”.

The Orange Revolution represented something of a watershed moment for regime promotion conflict between external actors in Ukraine. Shortly after the revolution in 2005, the EU involved Ukraine in its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), later solidified by the Eastern Partnership and the offer of an Association Agreement, which aimed at promoting European style democratisation in Ukraine through offering trade and economic incentives in return for successful reform. As outlined in a jointly agreed action plan, “further strengthening the stability and effectiveness of institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law” was deemed the top priority of the relationship, with additional mention of electoral performance, judicial performance, freedom of media and the fight against corruption as well.

Conversely, Russia became more assertive in its regime promotion strategies by employing its own form of conditionality; offering Ukraine a membership opportunity in its Eurasian Economic Union project, a politically and economically less demanding alternative to the EU’s EaP initiative. Although not officially designed to promote autocracy, Russia’s insistence on a loyal Ukrainian regime did have important democratic implications, particularly in relation to lessening the impact of the EU’s prescribed reforms. As Thomas Ambrosio argues, Russia has endeavoured, particularly in its periphery, to create “conditions under which democracy promotion is blunted and state sovereignty (understood as the ability of leaders to determine the form of government for their country) is further entrenched.”

The competing regime preferences of the EU and Russia made life incredibly difficult for Ukraine’s rulers, particularly given the necessity of Ukraine’s long held multi-vector foreign policy to its functioning. Noticeably during Yanukovych’s reign (2010-2014), regime promotion competition between the EU and Russia became more zero-sum and partly contributed to the onset of the Ukraine crisis. Ultimately, the strategic calculations of key elites in Ukraine continued to deem the costs of undertaking Ukraine’s democratic reform targets (as prescribed by the EU) as higher than the benefits. Additionally, the costs of Russia’s threats and actions helped produce an outcome where only half-hearted attempts at pursuing democratisation occurred during this period. Although it is probably too early to assess the external dimension of the post-Yanukovych setting as it pertains to democratisation (and regime promotion), it appears that Ukraine is destined to become something of a static buffer state between the EU and Russia, and thus, remain an illiberal democracy.

Does civil society promotion hold the key for Ukraine?

Sadly, there has been little evidence in the 25 years of Ukrainian independence to date to suggest that a fully functioning Western-style liberal democracy is within Ukraine’s immediate grasp. However, one substantive development necessary for a functioning democracy, civil society, has arguably strengthened in Ukraine over the past decade, particularly in the wake of the Euromaidan movement and the subsequent flight of Yanukovych from power. Across the board the key democracy rating indexes – whether Freedom House, Bertelsmann, or the Economist’s Intelligence Unit – have tracked steady improvement in the health of Ukraine’s civil society, making it a rare area that has not backslid noticeably since the failure of the Orange Revolution.

Linz and Stepan define civil society as “that arena of polity where self-organizing groups, movements and individuals, relatively autonomous from the state, attempt to articulate values, create associations and solidarities, and advance their interests.” Civil society is undoubtedly a key aspect of a functioning democracy, a way of fomenting bottom-up democratisation as it serves an important function in mobilising pressure for political change through the creation of organised social groups. Thus, as Carrothers argues, the strengthening of civil society helpsdemocratic forms transform into democratic substance.

However, as the civil society promotion strategies which have been employed in post-Soviet transitioning states by external donors such as the United States and the European Union demonstrate, there is an element of ethnocentrism in these policies which has tended to pay little attention to the innate characteristics of societies, such as Ukraine, on the ground. Instead of utilising or building on the inherent networks and proto-civil societal groups present in post-Soviet societies, foreign donors have tended to promote Western-entrenched ideas of civil society, many of which are incompatible or inappropriate. Hann calls this an “abortion of local processes of change”which compromises the true essence of civil society: “the freedom to imagine the world could be different.”

Consequently, the majority of civil society promotion strategies towards Ukraine wielded by the West have suffered from a narrow scope which equated civil society promotion solely with NGO formation. Indeed NGO formation is an important aspect of civil society building. However, this ‘NGOization’ of civil society at the hands of foreign donors has proliferated organisations that are predominately set up to procure international funding rather than pursue any form of civic activity. Therefore, the cluster of NGOs that have emerged in post-Soviet states like Ukraine cannot be called functioning civil societies because they rarely engage in the fundamental aspects of civil society but rather engage in professionalised advocacy and service delivery.

Therefore, due to the negative influence of Western-backed NGOs, among other issues, Ukraine’s civil society hastraditionally failed to offer a conduit for average citizens to effect change or check the pervasive corruption of elites.However, in the wake of the deterioration of the Yanukovych regime and the emergence of Euromaidan movement, there is renewed optimism that civil society can be a positive force for Ukrainian democratisation. Indeed, Euromaidan was positive in the sense that it helped galvanise popular mobilisation which aided in removing Yanukovych from power. However, given that democracy has hardly flourished since Poroshenko, Yanukovych’s replacement, came to office, it is uncertain as to whether civil society is currently at a level to propel Ukraine forward.

Nevertheless, as Iryna Solonenko argues, one of the key outcomes of the Euromaidan movement has been that:

there is more trust in civil society among the broader society, while thanks to the protests and external aggression, the separation between civil society and the broader society has become blurred – many more people have become involved in informal civic networks and voluntary activities or have become donors.

Indeed, newer movements like Chesno – a network comprising of activists and NGOs set up in the wake of the 2011 parliamentary elections and prominent during the Euromaidan movement – seem to embody the claim that Ukraine is developing a more mature civil society as they undertook a more proactive role in Ukraine politics than previous civil society organisations had. Additionally, these groups seem to be more respected by elites, the general public and outsiders than previous movements.

External promoters of democracy have taken note of Ukraine’s apparent improved civil society performance post-Euromaidan and have sought to strengthen engagement with these nascent movements. The largest promoter, the EU, set up the EU-Ukraine Civil Society Platform (CSP), which promised €355 million to “enhance the role of civil society in promoting and monitoring democratic reforms.” Additionally, other promoters such as USAID, the United Nations Development Program, the Open Society Foundation, among others, have upped their involvement and their investment in Ukraine’s civil society. However, whether the external donors have learnt their lessons regarding the ethnocentrism and the negative consequences of past promotion efforts remain to be seen.

Ultimately, Ukraine’s civil society needs to be one of the core foci of a comprehensive democratisation strategy as it holds the key to taming the negative influence of elites as well as organically fostering a unique democratic culture for Ukraine. Thus, civil society promotion could represent a way of firstly fixing one of the key external impediments, ineffective democracy promotion, to Ukraine’s democratisation efforts which, in turn, would work towards fixing the biggest internal impediment, the role of oligarchs. However, for such a strategy to work, it requires long-term planning and patience as Ukraine’s democratisation trajectory towards fulfilling its potential as a functioning liberal democracy should not be viewed in years but in decades.