With the Ukrainian elections resolved and the Parliament duly sitting with a unified Opposition bloc — composed of tired old parties, a new up-and-coming party, and Jew-hating fascists — it is time to truly assess where Ukraine stands as a democracy.
By any measure, the recent elections were a success; those international observers who criticized the elections did so not on the procedure or the rule of law, but on the fact that Yulia Tymoshenko is still in prison for her crimes. Ms. Tymoshenko was not a candidate in the elections, but she serves as a cheap excuse to ignore the fact that President Viktor Yanukovych has largely hewn to the same foreign policy outlines as his predecessor, aiming for closer European integration while pushing greater reforms than the prior administration did.
So it is helpful to have a useful corrective in place. Former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski recently gave an interview with the Polish media, discussing Ukraine’s progress as a democratic nation. “Comparing at least the situation with Ukraine’s neighbors, that is Belarus or Russia, no doubt, in spite of all the warnings and criticisms, which we can express toward Ukraine, this country is closest to the European standards,” he said.
“There is probably the strongest opposition, furthermore, it is united, which neither Russia nor Belarus nor Central Asia have, there is a significantly higher level of freedom and media freedom. There are a lot of reforms, and they are being implemented, though with difficulties,” he added.
This is a fair assessment. Ukraine’s civil society was badly damaged by the Soviet occupation — the word “dekulakization” exists for a reason — but especially in the last years, it has made a determined march toward an effective democracy, lately with a series of electoral, pension, land, and tax reforms designed to bring the country into line with Western norms.
It has its hurdles. The bureaucracy is an entrenched interest and resists any civil service reform. The country has taken a severe beating with the worldwide economic downturn, as its industrial output — a huge portion of GDP — has come under assault. The ruinous gas contract to which Tymoshenko illegally bound the country (gas is more expensive for Ukraine than for the countries to which its pipes send the same gas) has further complicated matters. In a poll in advance of the elections, the Kyiv Post found that large segments of the country would either sell their vote or could understand the rationale for a neighbor doing so.
But the country’s governing norms appear to be holding even so. The Opposition, despite welcoming a group of Jew-hating fascists into their ranks with open arms, are a viable force; after all, except for the neo-Nazis and some re-shuffling by the Opposition parties, they were in power until 2010. The recent election results tracked closely with opinion polling performed by official and Opposition-aligned polling outfits. Yanukovych will face a real test at the next elections, as his push to join the European Union loses him some support in the Russian-aligned East and the Opposition, with some work, learns to talk about something besides Tymoshenko.
Belarus it is not, and Kwasniewski provides a welcome reminder of this truth. The new session of the Ukrainian Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, will have a great deal to tackle during its current session; but that effort will be accomplished in the same manner as in any other democracy, with the government and the opposition battling and at times agreeing.
That is the truth of Ukraine. It lies with the West to encourage that truth to remain constant.