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.