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Divided Democracy: A Guide to the Crisis in Ukraine

The World | Zahar Hryniv

Since Ukraine obtained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country remains a classic example of one step forward, two steps back. A combination of both desire for better governance and closer ties with the European Union culminated in the Maidan Revolution that took place on the streets of Kyiv in 2014. Despite initial hopes for change and a better future, the results four years on have fallen drastically short of expectations. After a long, arduous journey, perhaps Ukraine can finally find its path towards establishing an effective democracy and a balanced foreign policy that will offer well-being for its citizens and stability in a region frozen with conflict.

Identity, Revolution and Geopolitics

Inside Ukraine, enormous potential for progress and prosperity exists, but endemic corruption, ineffective government and a feudal, oligarchic system divides the country and impedes its progress. A land sitting at the cross-roads of civilization, often forgotten and often ignored, Ukraine nonetheless remains significant for the stability of the region. For much of its history, it has struggled to come to terms with its identity. A divide over whether to lean towards Europe with liberal, democratic government or towards Russia with highly personalized, autocratic rule is a prevalent dilemma in Ukrainian society.

In the winter of 2014, social tensions in Ukraine came to a head with the so-called ‘Revolution of Dignity’. A peaceful student demonstration turned violent, eventually leading to the overthrow of the democratically elected, pro-Russian President. Yanukovych, who rejected closer ties with the EU in exchange for closer ties with Moscow, fled the country in February after three months of protests. His parliamentary party was disbanded and the government was replaced by an opposition who were openly pro-European. Elections were soon called in May and a new President was elected who promised accession to the European Union and reform of Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt institutions. However, swift actions like these have had major unintended consequences.

Russia, seeing Ukraine shift out of its orbit, decided to re-integrate Crimea back into its fold. Call it a silent invasion or a democratic referendum of the Crimean people; Putin’s gambit paid off. Nonetheless, to understand this conflict one must also understand the Russian perspective. NATO has been expanding eastwards ever since the end of the Cold War, integrating former Soviet republics into the US-led alliance and placing advanced weapon systems closer and closer to Russia’s border. Ukraine, in the end, was the

straw that broke the camel’s back. It is no secret that the USA has a vested interest in developing a pro-Western, democratic state on Russia’s doorstep; already spending more than $5 billion in foreign aid to Ukraine since its independence. In the Maidan Revolution, it even sided with Ukraine’s opposition by offering moral and financial support.

A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

Effectively, the events of 2014 meant that the cogs of government changed, but the engine still remained the same. Four years on, corruption still persists, inflation, crime and emigration is on the rise, salaries are not being paid and unemployment is even higher than before the revolution. Furthermore, the civil war in the industrial region of the east has led to the deaths of over 10,000 people, both soldiers and civilians.

Historic cultural divisions in civil society, predating recent civil unrest, also run deep. By looking at voting behaviour, for example, we can see a clear divide where the west and central regions lean towards Europe and the east and southern regions lean towards Russia. So when Ukraine’s post-revolution government temporarily abolished a law making Russian an official second language, people in cities such as Donetsk and Luhansk protested. Those who identify with Russia to a greater degree denounced the new government and called on Russia to protect their rights.

Long-standing internal division, the rise of radical militias and the government’s rash deployment of troops into the region have unnecessarily escalated the conflict. This has led Russia to aid rebel troops and Ukraine

to entrench itself in a war that it could never win. Consequently, the very fabric of civil society in Ukraine has changed. Families have been torn apart, communities are under strain and childhoods are now marred by war and conflict.

So many things are possible, as long as you don’t know they are impossible

To arrive at a resolution, the conflict in East Ukraine must first end. For this to happen, constructive rhetoric and a neutral foreign policy must work in tandem with each other. Today, two de-facto republics exist in the east, the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, clashing with government forces on a daily basis. Solutions from sending in UN Peacekeepers to giving the republics special status within Ukraine under the Minsk Deal have been proposed. However, there is little political will on either side to foster an agreement. For Russia, an unstable Ukraine serves its geopolitical purposes. Its foothold in the east prevents Ukraine from taking concrete steps to join NATO or the EU. On the other hand, Ukraine’s toxic, close-minded approach towards its closest neighbour only hinders cooperation and mutual understanding.

Domestically, efforts must be undertaken for the Eastern regions of the country to become more enfranchised in the political process. The main problem is finding the right model of government that takes into account the country’s geographic and ideological diversity. Under its current constitution, Ukraine gives far-reaching powers to the President that often clash with that of the Prime Minister and parliament. Shifting to a parliamentary model and introducing new electoral laws based on open-list proportional representation would all be steps in the right direction. Regional divisions can offer stability in a parliamentary system and will prevent one side from usurping power by giving the opposition a strong voice. The political issue of special status for the two breakaway republics could be mitigated by devolving power to Ukraine’s diverse regions, and thus allowing for more inclusive, local empowerment, alongside economic, political and cultural autonomy.

A combination of institutional reform at home, the enfranchisement of the largely Russian speaking Eastern regions into Ukraine’s political culture and a balanced, neutral foreign policy all serve as a guideline for the country’s development. To mitigate conflict, Ukraine must act as a neutral buffer between the West and Russia, thus enhancing its ability to achieve unity, stability and prosperity. Unfortunately, it currently resembles a geopolitical faultline between the two global powers and a country that is internally paralyzed by corruption. Nevertheless, I believe Ukraine truly has the potential to be strong and independent, to act as a mediator and consensus-builder in world politics and to go beyond fear and petty squabbling. However, as long as there are politicians who serve themselves and citizens who are passive and cynical, none of this can be achieved. To succeed, everyone must play their part and play it well.


Originally published 22.11.18 in Vol. 2 No. 1.


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