Paul Niland: Ukraine on front lines of global democratic fight

As Ukraine celebrates 25 years as an independent nation, it’s worth taking a look at the differences between Ukraine and the other states that gained independence as the Soviet Union so spectacularly collapsed.

With the exceptions of the Baltic nations, who quickly adopted transparent governance models 25 years ago after regaining the independence since the Soviet annexation of their countries at the start of World War II, the most striking commonality of other ex-Soviet states is that they are ruled by dynasties. The only way to establish a political dynasty is the suppression of the basics of democracy, free speech, alternative political choices, and so on.

Read the full coverage of Independendence Day here

Post-Soviet dynasties

From Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus to Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, and of course Vladimir Putin in Russia, these are all leaders who have created a one-party state and denied freedoms of others to compete against them. Of course, the same thing was supposed to happen in Ukraine. An autocratic, but Moscow subservient, dynasty was slated to be Ukraine’s system, too.

The hand picked head of the dynasty for Ukraine was, of course, none other than Victor Yanukovych, but this dynasty took more than one attempt to realise and took two people power revolutions to end.

Foiling Yanukovych

The first attempt to get Yanukovych installed as Ukraine’s head of state was in the run up to the presidential election of 2004, the method was cruel but simple, and nothing new for Russian state craft. In 2004, Yanukovych had a viable challenger, Victor Yushenko. So, the dynasty creation plan meant an attempt to murder him by poisoning. The perpetrators of that unsolved crime are now believed to be in Russia.

When the poisoning failed to kill Yanukovych’s challenger, the next effort to install Yanukovych was crude ballot box fraud. Here is where the directions of Ukraine and the other post-Soviet states begins to differ greatly. The reaction to this attempt to steal power was the Orange Revolution.
Manafort’s help

But at this Russia was not done. The following attempt to get their man in power consisted in the now infamous game of pass-the-Paul Manafort; from Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, to Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, to President-in-Waiting Yanukovych. Manafort first helped Yanukovych’s Russophile Party of Regions gain a large enough share in the 2006 parliamentary elections for Yanukovych to stake a claim for a second stint as prime minister.

Soviet dissident and Ukrainian lawmaker Levko Lukyanenko speaks to people on the square of the October Revolution (now Independence Square) in Kyiv on Aug. 24, 1991, following the proclamation of Ukraine as an independent state.

Soviet dissident and Ukrainian lawmaker Levko Lukyanenko speaks to people on the square of the October Revolution (now Independence Square) in Kyiv on Aug. 24, 1991, following the proclamation of Ukraine as an independent state. (UNIAN)

It’s worth noting, not least by the present political leadership in Ukraine, that it was Yushchenko’s own failure to deliver significant reforms that also played a part in this: you have been warned.
With Manafort’s help, Yanukovych had returned from the political wilderness, and whereas he had been disgraced by the events that led up to and caused the Orange Revolution, he now held one of the highest posts in the country, again. Of course, at that point Manafort cannot be accused of doing anything illegal, the morality of representing a man like Yanukovych is another matter, but

Manafort had worked for other unsavoury characters in the past and clearly way past any trivial consideration of morality.

Controlling media

Where Manafort may have crossed a line was in the use of Deripaska’s cash to gain control of strategic media outlets in Odesa on behalf of the Party of Regions and then later by allegedly channeling $2.2 million to lobby firms in Washington as payment for spinning the reasons for the imprisonment of political rival Yulia Tymoshenko, among other things – things that require registration and declaration in the United States as actions on behalf of a foreign government.

A smooth – so it seemed at the time – political operator in charge of pretending his client was anything but the twice convicted criminal and head of a disgustingly corrupt system, Yanukovych went on to win the presidential election in 2010 and became Ukraine’s head of state. At this point, Ukrainians didn’t object, but as we came to understand later there is a vast difference between a legitimate election result and a legitimate right to continue to rule.

The reasons for and catalyst of the Revolution of Dignity, or EuroMaidan Revolution, are documented and accepted as truth by all but a handful of misinformed persons.
But events since the revolution are worthy of the most attention now.

Ukraine as test case

The challenges that Ukraine faced were not unique. The exact same conditions exist today in the aforementioned countries where dynasties dominate the political scene. The problems are vast corruption, especially in the personal appropriation of funds that should belong to the state(s) that come from the murky gas and oil businesses of the region. The corruption extends to every sphere of life, from a lazy and abusive police force, to rigged state tenders to a court system creating wealthy judges who rule based on financial motivation or political pressure rather than on sound legal arguments.

The world needs to recognize that Ukraine is not part of some basket-case system where these problems are ubiquitous and never ending. Because it is Ukraine that is actually forging the way in working out how to deal with the region wide problems that are the hallmark of the post-Soviet space. The future of the entire region – therefore the lives of more than 280 million people – is at stake.

Whether Ukraine succeeds or fails is about more than Ukraine. The people of Ukraine are not pawns in a game between East and West. They are the principal actors in a battle between old and new.

Destroying corruption

The old ways – rampant corruption and the denial of democratic rights – is what is being fought over in today’s Ukraine. The people of Ukraine have been leading the fight against that system for over two years, through great hardships and sorrow, as civil society drives the political classes and forces them to continue reforms that curb corrupt practices.

The success of Maidan was sealed with the blood of Ukrainian people, young and old, who refused to allow their lives to be dominated by arrogant thieves.

The real reason why certain people (or, regimes) find it necessary to distort the reality of Ukraine is that they are afraid, because the methodology for a full reboot of the post-Soviet system is being created in Ukraine now. Solutions to regional specific problems, such as ending the corrupt relationships between governments and oligarchies, and severing the ties between organised crime and law enforcement,. are being tested and refined in Ukraine.

Examples of progress

We have obvious examples of progress in these areas. The state gas company now works transparently. It’s no longer the creator of billion- dollar fortunes for a connected few. Gas is purchased without intermediaries via open tender. We have a new professional police force, albeit one that struggles to work with laws that require updating. And we have a new government tender system called ProZorro, which is estimated to have saved the state Hr 13 billion hryvnias in the last year.

The most significant battle ahead is reforming the judiciary, one of the key facilitators of corruption.
When we look at who is trying to stop democratic development (and obviously thwart anti-corruption initiatives at the same time), we see why the world should support Ukraine’s experiment in every way, including advice and guidance, including increased sanctions against those who continue to wage war in and against Ukraine.

For all the faults and the mistakes being made, Ukrainians are on the front lines of a globally important battle. Ukrainians deserves respect and support as they lead the way to improving the lives of all people living in the former Soviet Union.


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