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Ukraine’s 31 years of independence weave a tapestry of woe

The ongoing war is held up as a battle between democracy and autocracy, but Ukraine's political history since independence in 1991 reveals a country where democracy has been hard to sow.

This is the first of a two-part series on the history of Ukrainian democracy since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union.

(CN) — Critical news outlets are banned, opposition parties outlawed, rival politicians prosecuted, journalists assassinated. Political corruption is endemic. Oligarchs control the media, the parliament and regional politics. Minorities suffer discrimination, the prisons are squalid, judges are corruptible and violence hangs over the politics and people of this impoverished post-Soviet society.

This isn't just a description of Russia, but also of Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine is often described as a titanic struggle between democracy and autocracy – between good and evil – but in truth it is problematic to hold Ukraine up as a beacon of democracy because the country's track record on human rights, political freedom and democratic values is very troubling.

Since the outbreak of a full-scale war over Ukraine, Western media, officialdom and intellectuals have glossed over or ignored many anti-democratic currents that have coursed through Ukraine's politics since it gained independence in 1991, even accelerating in recent years under Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

In the Western narrative, a “bad” Russia is spreading “Putinism” and autocracy around the world and threatening the foundations of a liberal world order with the invasion of its neighbor while a “good” West is defending Ukraine in a kind of crusade to uphold democracy and human rights.

The problem though with the West's argument is that in many respects the disaster happening in Ukraine also is rooted in the country's own troubled and undemocratic history since it was shorn from the Soviet grip.

Since 1991, Ukrainian politics have felt like a roller-coaster ride of corruption, assassinations, partisan prosecutions, malicious foreign intervention by both the West and Russia, and two neoliberal “color revolutions” that twice deposed a thuggish but popular Belarusian-Russian-Polish oligarch-turned-president. It's a story of parliamentary fist fights, scandals, unlawful constitutional tinkering and toxic refighting of old historical clashes between “Nazis” and “Reds.”

In short, it's a history of a deeply troubled state.

Even Freedom House, a nonpartisan U.S. government-funded organization that promotes democracy around the world and which is involved in Ukraine, describes the country as only “partly free.”

“Ukraine has enacted a number of positive reforms since the protest-driven ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014,” Freedom House says in its profile on Ukraine. “However, corruption remains endemic, and initiatives to combat it are only partially implemented. Attacks against journalists, civil society activists, and members of minority groups are frequent, and police responses are often inadequate.”

The ouster of Yanukovych and installation of a pro-Western, Ukrainian nationalist government in the so-called “Revolution of Dignity” or “Maidan Revolution” was the decisive turning point in Ukraine's turbulent history and can be seen as a primary cause for the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Large segments of Ukrainian society supported the Maidan Revolution as an uprising against corrupt Russian influences and power; but it is also true that large segments saw the uprising as an illegitimate, violent overthrow of a democratically elected, albeit Russia-friendly, government.

Since independence, voting data and public opinion polls consistently showed that Ukrainians were deeply divided over the direction they wanted their country to take.

The differences were mainly reflected in an east-west split with people in western Ukraine, Kyiv and parts of central Ukraine seeing themselves as part of Western Europe while many Ukrainians in eastern, southern and parts of central Ukraine want to see their country cultivate friendly terms with both the West and Russia.

Western Ukraine includes many Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian and German ancestors because for centuries these lands fell under kingdoms ruled from Warsaw, Vilnius, Budapest and Vienna. Many westerner Ukrainians are Catholics – their church is known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – though more are in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

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Eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, historically was closer to Russia and fell completely under the rule of Moscow's tsars in the late 18th century. In this part of Ukraine, there are concentrations of ethnic Russians, Russian speakers and many followers of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

These regional differences were seen in Ukrainian attitudes toward NATO and the European Union too: Until war broke out with Russia, Ukrainians were skeptical toward NATO membership and even divided over the benefits of joining the European Union.

Western experts on Ukraine too are split in their opinions on how to characterize the Maidan events of the 2013-2014 winter: Many see it as a Western-backed “revolution” in the name of democracy and against oligarchic rule and Russian autocracy while many others call it a Western-backed right-wing and nationalistic “coup d'état.”

In any event, Yanukovych's overthrow led to Russia's annexation of Crimea; the passage of sweeping anti-Russian legislation in Ukraine; discrimination against ethnic Russians and left-wing proponents; and most tragic of all, the outbreak of what some experts describe as a civil war between pro-Russian and pro-Western Ukrainians over the future of their country. In many respects, the conflict echoed the bloody civil war between the Whites and the Reds – landowners and monarchists versus the peasantry and communists – that broke out after the Bolsheviks' October Revolution.

The post-Maidan period ushered in a new chapter of heavy handed anti-democratic measures as the state apparatus, now in the hands of pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists, sought to stamp out so-called "pro-Russian" forces and influences in a country where 18% of the population identified themselves as ethnic Russian, 60% spoke Russian as their primary language and where many people (about 41%, according to one 2021 poll) agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” united by history and religion.

Ukrainian nationalists argued the country needed to take action, even if that meant against its own “pro-Russian” citizens, because Ukraine was corrupted by the long reach of Moscow.

Petro Sukhorolskyi, a political scientist at Lviv Polytechnic National University in Ukraine, argues Russia's tentacles and efforts to retain control over former Soviet republics halted the development of democracy in Ukraine from the moment it gained independence in August 1991.

“Its influence in Ukraine only grew, and included a huge number of legal and illegal instruments: the creation and financing of a large number of political parties and NGOs; partial control over power structures, including the intelligence and the army, where almost all Soviet officials continued to work,” he said in an email.

He said Russia's provision of extremely cheap natural gas to Ukraine gave it leverage over the economy and public opinion while Russian money had “a huge direct and indirect influence on media and cultural sphere” and was used to bribe politicians and officials.

“With this in mind, we cannot know for sure what Ukrainian democracy would have been like before the start of the war, if it had developed independently,” he said.

Volodymyr Ishchenko, a Ukrainian political sociologist at the Free University of Berlin, sees the Maidan events as exacerbating divisions in the country, contrary to “the main narratives” about the uprising giving rise to “an inclusive civic nation, finally unifying the East and West of the country, and of a vibrant civil society pushing for democratizing reforms.”

In an interview with New Left Review earlier this year, he said “unifying trends were paralleled by polarizing trends” and the spread of civic nationalism “did not undermine but empowered ethnic nationalism; that inclusion and expansion of democracy for some meant exclusion and repression for others.”

“A large tranche of political positions supported by many Ukrainians were moved beyond the boundaries of acceptability, according to this new articulation of the Ukrainian nation,” he said.

After the Maidan Revolution, people were stigmatized as dangerously pro-Russian if they favored joining Russia-led international organizations, such as the Eurasian Union, and staying out of NATO and for criticizing “decommunization” or restrictions on the use of the Russian language in the public sphere.

“So, a wide range of political positions supported by a large minority, sometimes even by the majority, of Ukrainians – sovereigntist, state-developmentalist, illiberal, left-wing – were blended together and labeled ‘pro-Russian narratives’ because they challenged the dominant pro-Western, neoliberal and nationalist discourses in Ukraine’s civil society,” Ishchenko said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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