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Ukraine’s stagnant democracy: Reflections after a T.V. star’s presidential win

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

By Paul Shields

Ukrainians made a bold gamble by picking Volodymyr Zelensky – a former actor – to be their new president. Zelensky 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, Zelensky’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. The high rate of executive turnover stems from widespread public dissatisfaction with the continuous failed attempts at political and social reform since the early 1990s. In this environment, newly elected leaders often ride the anti-establishment wave, promoting a new politics based entirely against the status quo of corruption, injustice, and low economic growth. 

Zelensky’s election strategy was no different. He developed an image for himself as the young and attractive outsider. In his own way, Zelensky is a mix of Macron with Boris Johnson impulses. In his speeches, he directly appealed to anti-elitist feelings by declaring he would, “break the system”. Yet Zelensky 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

Zelensky 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. Zelensky 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. The frozen conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukraine will also continue to sap vital state resources, stunting any attempts at internal restructuring. In such an environment, democracy will be stagnant leaving Ukraine without the fresh breath of air 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 recognize the institution as completely hollow. Thanks to unfair hiring procedures, the court will be run by handpicked loyal judges with corrupt records, ultimately rendering 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, cherry-picked administrators run NABU, who 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 realize that throwing out presidents, voting in news ones, and hoping things will change is not enough. The most serious problem for Ukraine is the state’s underdeveloped institutions that allow corruption to pervade across every level of society. This is an issue that cannot be solved by simply installing a new President. 

A real solution would involve more publicly spirited citizens venturing into the bully pulpit of Ukrainian politics and reshaping institutions from the inside out. 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 operating within elected office, 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 in the streets or in town squares, but it is also forged in the everyday dealings of administrative institutions, the legislature, and local executive townships. If Ukrainians can learn this, their country might find itself creeping towards a more liberal democracy. 

Paul Shields graduated with honors from Stanford University. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Russia and now is a graduate student of politics at Oxford University.

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