The political crisis in Ukraine is a stark wake-up call for those politicians and pundits who were so quick last winter to laud what they viewed as the inevitable, quick triumph of democracy. It is also a reminder that there is no substitute for determined investment if the United States is to secure the benefits of “regime change.”
Paul Saunders and I drew a good deal of criticism for an essay (“On Liberty“) we penned earlier this year when we wrote, “Some act as if the emergence of democracy in a country were solely a matter of protests in a capital city’s main square … and they downplay the very real challenges needed to make democracies functional. Others, anxious to prove that the number of ‘democracies’ in the world is growing, seem more eager to color in new countries on the map as ‘democratic’ than to establish sustainable democracies that genuinely provide freedom, justice and a better quality of life to their citizens.” But in the aftermath of recent events in Kiev, I think our cautionary perspective has been vindicated. I’d also like to echo a point raised by John Mearsheimer, author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics: “Realists are often accused of disliking democracy and even of being anti-democratic. This is a bogus charge. … Realists, however, are well aware of the difficulty of spreading democracy …”
Alright, enough theoretical posturing, and on to the question at hand: What’s happening in Ukraine?
Fulfilling the promises of the “Orange Revolution”–after all, Ukrainians (and Georgians and Kyrgyz, for their part) did not risk life and limb to protest electoral violations last November to dispossess one group of oligarchs in favor of empowering another group–was always going to be difficult. But Ukraine (like Serbia in 2000, or even Boris Yeltsin’s Russia in 1991) had two particular hurdles to overcome.
The first challenge was for Viktor Yushchenko to transform an umbrella opposition movement into a governing coalition. Up to the presidential elections, it was very clear what the various members of the opposition were against–they were against the authoritarian, crony-capitalism regime of outgoing president Leonid Kuchma; they were against the efforts of then prime-minister Viktor Yanukovych to fix the elections in his favor; they wanted Ukraine to join the Euro-Atlantic community. But the politicians, intellectuals, and tycoons who clustered together under Yushchenko’s banner had no common political agenda. Some wanted to pursue radical-free market reforms while others hankered for a kinder, gentler version of Soviet socialism. And while some were committed to ending the practice of using state power to apportion out the country’s economy, others were more than happy to retain Ukrainian crony-capitalism if they could be the beneficiaries. (And like the Clintons in the United States, a number of Ukrainian political figures who had applauded the media’s efforts to uncover corruption and malfeasance when it was directed against their opponents didn’t particularly care for any sort of in-depth investigative journalism into their own affairs.) Up to this week, Yushchenko tried to balance his populist-oligarch prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko–whose exuberance and fiery rhetoric and popularity with the crowds many credit for the success of the Orange Revolution with Petro Poroshenko, a close ally whom he appointed as chairman of the security and defense council. But the exodus of several key officials–including Yushchenko’s own chief of staff–as well as increasingly bitter battles over the fate of a number of key Ukrainian assets (with different business groups lining up behind Tymoshenko and Poroshenko) ended this arrangement. Yushchenko has nominated a technocratic governor, Yuri Yekhanurov, as the new prime minister, but cannot bequeath his choice a majority in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. Whether the country can move ahead and whether the government can demonstrate a renewed commitment to fighting corruption and forging ahead with reform remains to be seen.
But the West can’t salve its own conscience by blaming this solely on the Ukrainians. Many of us today have a curious lapse of memory when talking about the transitions to democracy in Eastern Europe after 1989. We put forward a heroic tale about how Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, or Hungarians transformed dysfunctional communist regimes into flourishing democracies (and assume therefore that Ukrainians, Georgians, Iraqis, or Lebanese should do the same). But as John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven pointed out in the summer issue of The National Interest, it was the prospect of eventual membership in NATO and the European Union which forced discipline on the political and economic elites of Eastern Europe, enabling them to make the hard choices necessary to reform their societies.
I wrote in the November 26, 2004 issue of the International Herald Tribune that if the Orange Revolution were to succeed, a Yushchenko government “would have to demonstrate that his westward-oriented policies would generate results. And here the United States and the European Union would have to lay down clear benchmarks for facilitating Ukraine’s closer integration with the Euro-Atlantic world — and be prepared to commit real resources. Even if European leaders hold out the prospect of EU membership decades in the future, there is no reason that tangible benefits cannot be offered now — such as a free-trade agreement, or a guest worker regime that allows Ukrainians to live and work legally in Europe or in the United States.”
And it seemed that leading members of the Congress agreed–and even couched facilitating Ukraine’s closer integration with the West as a vital national security interest of the United States. At a hearing of the House International Relations Committee on December 7, 2004, Congressman Henry Hyde declared: “An independent Ukraine allied to the West, then, is the key to security in the East. … Because if Ukraine’s independence is to be made secure, it must be fully integrated into and protected by the West and its institutions. I don’t know what the European Union may do toward this end, but I believe that Ukraine’s independence can only be guaranteed by it becoming a full member of NATO, and it can become a member of NATO only if it has become a true democracy. Full membership may not be possible in the immediate future, but many of its benefits can be harvested by making our commitment clear now.” For his part, Congressman Tom Lantos expressed his distress that the United States and Europe had done so little to block Russian neo-imperialism.
Back in June I wrote: “Seeds of democracy may have been planted throughout Eurasia; whether they take root and flower depends on whether they are nourished. We need a new strategy — the old one is no longer viable.”
So where does Ukraine go from here? Can Yushchenko put the Orange Coalition back together? After all, the forces which backed ex-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych last year are organizing for next year’s parliamentary elections. I can see the slogan now: “We were corrupt but we gave you 13 percent growth.” (So far, under the current regime, growth has slowed to 4 percent). And just as Iranians gave their votes to a hard-line candidate who promised to root out corruption and improve ordinary Iranians’ quality of life, might Ukrainian voters next year decide that the “democrats” can’t deliver and that that the “old regime” was the better option? Russian voters who overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Boris Yeltsin in 1991 embraced his political enemies two years later.
It is also too early to tell what the impact will be of the decision of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus at the recent Kazan summit to proceed with the formation of the “Common Economic Space” by March 2006 without waiting for Ukraine to decide whether it wants to take part. Significantly, it seems that Russia has rejected Kiev’s proposals for bilateral arrangements; thus, by the time of the parliamentary elections, Yushchenko may have the worst of all possible worlds; blamed by the eastern half of the country for self-excluding Ukraine from a free-trade arrangement with two of its major economic partners without being able to demonstrate any conclusive progress toward eventual EU and NATO membership.
Americans lost interest in Ukraine once the squares emptied and the cameras moved on. But if the success of the Orange Revolution is indeed as vital to U.S. national security as so many here in Washington have claimed, then we’d better be prepared to act.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.