Ukraine’s Democracy Is (Almost) All Grown Up

Optimistic piece from Alexander Motyl

If Zelensky can build on his predecessor’s legacy, he may just succeed in furthering Ukraine’s economic growth and drawing the country still closer to the West.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech during celebrations to mark Ukraine’s 28th Independence Day in Kyiv on Aug. 24. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Since Volodymyr Zelensky, a politically untested television star, was elected to the Ukrainian presidency earlier this year, most observers have focused their attention on him. This is understandable, but the real story behind Ukraine’s politics resides in the interplay of three forces that are only partially susceptible to Zelensky’s influence: political and economic institutions, civil society, and political and economic elites. Zelensky’s success or failure as president will largely depend on how well he plays the cards he was given.

Despite his many critics, former President Petro Poroshenko consolidated Ukraine’s state, nation, democracy, and economy; pivoted the country toward the West; and saved Ukraine from the mercenaries and Russian troops that commandeered its eastern stretches. He built an army, reformed the regular police and streamlined the security police, cleaned up the deeply corrupt banking sector, stabilized the currency, opened up the media, and rationalized energy prices. He oversaw reforms of education and medicine and encouraged a revival of Ukrainian language and culture. He won independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate and devolved authority and resources to local governments.

For all its faults, Ukraine today is a centrist democracy with a division of powers among more or less independent and autonomous executive, legislative, and judicial branches. These power centers play by the rules of the constitution or, at worst, invoke the constitution while hoping to justify their violations. Left- and right-wing extremists who reject the democratic rules of the game garner only a few percentage points of the popular vote—far fewer than their counterparts in Germany and France.

Ukraine also has an essentially market-based, though imperfectly functioning, economy. The oligarchs still play an excessive role, but the overall system is capitalist and has points of dynamism, notably in the information technology sector, agriculture, and textiles. GDP has been growing over the last two years, despite the fact that the country is at war and managing 1.6 million internally displaced people.

The fact that democratic and market institutions are already in place means that Zelensky can focus on reforming that which exists rather than losing time constructing institutions from scratch. He has also been able to generate excitement among the foreign investor community, precisely because his promises of reform rest on solid foundations. At the same time, these institutions will constrain Zelensky and complicate reforms that aim at full-scale change.

Ukraine observers in the tradition of the late political theorist Samuel Huntington have worried that inexperienced democracies are prone to what he called “excess” participation by parochial civic groups, whose competing demands can “overload” weak state institutions and cause political instability. In Ukraine’s case, such a view is incorrect, and not just because its state institutions are not weak.

Ukraine has a rapidly modernizing and politically moderate civil society, which has repeatedly demonstrated its interest in universalistic values and political secularism. According to the writers Sophie Falsini, Anton Oleinik, and others, members of almost all of the country’s main social and ethnic groups participated in the Euromaidan revolution in 2014. And contrary to the Kremlin’s depictions of Ukraine as anti-Semitic and ethnically intolerant, the Jewish, Russophone Zelensky won 73 percent of the vote in the April presidential election, with large majorities or pluralities in every region of the country. Good governance and the economy, not ethnicity or the language of the candidates, were the citizenry’s main concerns. That was repeated in the parliamentary election of July 21, in which four centrist parties passed the 5 percent barrier.

In short, the Ukrainian state is on a more solid footing than Western analysts frequently believe, because it consists of consolidated institutions that are supported by civil society’s freely attained national consensus. Democracy is working as it should—it is stabilizing and becoming more appreciated by the public as an intrinsic good worth striving for.

Democracy is working as it should—it is stabilizing and becoming more appreciated by the public as an intrinsic good worth striving for.

A vigorous civil society poses opportunities for Zelensky. He can harness popular desires for deep institutional and economic reform, thereby overriding elite opposition and institutional blockages. At the same time, Zelensky is bound by his own campaign rhetoric, which promised immediate positive change and avoidance of corruption. Popular expectations are high, and Zelensky will be hard pressed to meet them. Some disillusionment is inevitable.

Although Zelensky’s Servant of the People party was given a strong mandate in the parliamentary election, winning over half of the seats, it is on notice by a public that has successfully demonstrated its ability to push out underperforming governments in 2004 and 2014. The challenge for Zelensky and his party is to engage enough of civil society in a sufficient reform to prevent the inevitable disillusionment from undermining his legitimacy.

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