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Ukraine’s stagnant democracy: Reflections after a TV star’s presidential win

Democracy in Ukraine is neither moving forward nor backward – it’s stagnant. 

June 11, 2019 - Paul Shields - Articles and Commentary

Ukraine Photo: Ilya (cc) flickr.com

Ukrainians made a bold gamble by picking Volodymyr Zelenskiy – a former actor – to be their new president. Zelenskiy has no political experience except for playing a bewildered president on screen whose running character motif was to ask: how did I get here?

At the same time, political pundits have labeled this presidential election as “a win for democracy”. This analysis however is misguided and premature. Rather, Zelenskiy’s victory represents a historical pattern in Ukraine that reflects a continual landscape of populist promises, the quick fall of an incumbent, and a uniquely active civil society. Democracy in Ukraine is thus neither declining nor consolidating – it’s stagnant.

Same story different tune

Ukrainians have a history of “throwing the rascals out”. Since the 1990s, Ukrainians have elected six different presidents and orchestrated two revolutions. In this environment, newly elected leaders often rode the anti-establishment wave, promoting a new politics based entirely against the status quo of corruption, injustice, and low economic growth.

Zelenskiy’s election strategy was no different. He developed an image for himself as the young and attractive outsider. In his speeches, he directly appealed to anti-elitist feelings by declaring he would, “break the system”. Yet Zelenskiy offered no clear solutions except for pointing his finger at others, which seemed to be enough for his dominating victory.

Although this may suggest political instability, this pattern in Ukrainian social life reinforces democratic consolidation. Consistent, free, and fair elections are the main mechanisms by which elected leaders are held accountable in office. In President Poroshenko’s case, he was unable to live up to what he promised so he got the boot.

Moreover, the fact that power will be transferred peacefully and cooperatively in a way that reflects the will of the people is also a good sign. This is what makes Ukraine standout in its authoritarian neighborhood. In this minimalist aspect of democracy, Ukraine’s got it down. Yet it is not necessarily new to the country.

Hurdles to democratic consolidation

Zelenskiy won the election promising to tackle corruption but he probably will not and cannot. Politics in Ukraine is governed by the continued unity of financial and political power, a system that has plagued the country since Soviet times. At the same time, internal checks and balances remain weak while oligarchs play a crucial role in Ukrainian politics.

These issues are likely here to stay. Zelenskiy will not be able to bring in a new cadre of elite with enough political will that can move the country in a more democratic direction. In tandem with continued Russia aggression sapping vital resources and attention, democracy in Ukraine will not get the new breath of air it desperately needs.

If the past is any template for the present, any attempt to break the wheelhouse of corruption will fail. Last year, after handballing with the United States, the International Monetary Fund, and local NGOs, Ukrainian legislators established a new Anti-Corruption Court in Kyiv. Although still in the implementation phase, many recognise the institution as completely hollow, thanks to unfair hiring procedures that rendered the judiciary non-independent.

Another example is the National Bureau for Anti-Corruption (NABU), which was established after the Euromaidan revolution as a way to help monitor government official’s lifestyles. Yet once again, administrators who run NABU push important investigations into indefinite cycles. As such, NABU is considered non-partial and (ironically) corrupt.

Additionally, former pro-democratic activists and journalists have also had the correct impulse and attempted to throw their own hat in the political arena following Maidan. Three former activists, Mustafa Nayyem, Svitlana Zalishchuk, and Serhiy Leschenko all got elected to parliament and were determined to change the system from the inside. Yet the blob they sought to break swallowed this small coalition of inexperienced parliamentarians. In the legislature they were bullied to the margins.

Building a democracy for Ukraine’s future

Will Zelinsky be able to deliver on his promises and break the system? Or will he fail like so many have before? Only time can tell, but we should not bet on it. The short-term political landscape in Ukraine looks to be much the same.

Ukrainians should realise that throwing out presidents, voting in news ones, and hoping things will change is not enough. More publicly spirited citizens ought to venture into the bully pulpit of Ukrainian politics and reshape institutions. A strong civil society, although incredibly important for Ukraine, is not enough. What the country really needs is more people dedicated to the democratic idea inside of elected offices, bureaus, schools, and in the police force in mass. This needs to happen not just the national level but the local level too.

Democracy is made not only on the streets and in elections, but also in town halls. If Ukrainians can learn this, their country might find itself creeping towards a more liberal democracy.

Paul Shields is a MPhil in Politics at Oxford University. He was a Fulbright Scholarship recipient in Russia and graduated from Stanford with honors.

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