Before the West breaks out the champagne over the successful overthrow of the Yanukovych government, it would behoove it to take a moment and ask, “Haven’t we seen this before”? Turn back the clock nine years to the inauguration of Viktor Yuschenko as President of Ukraine following the Orange Revolution. Then, as now, thousands of Ukrainians spent long winter nights protesting against the government in Independence Square. The protest movement, sparked by allegations of election fraud that initially cost Yuschenko the presidency, forced the Ukrainian Supreme Court to review the election results. The court ultimately scheduled a new round of elections where Yuschenko defeated the incumbent Prime Minister, none other than the now deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych. This victory for the protest movement was touted in the West as another example of the inexorable march of democratic progress and served as a great public relations opportunity for a U.S. administration attempting to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq.
As president, Yuschenko would go on to appoint Yulia Tymoshenko to serve under him as Ukraine’s Prime Minister. Tymoshenko it should be recalled, now touted as a possible successor to Yanukovych, was defeated in her last bid for the presidency by yet again, that same Viktor Yanukovych. Those who see Tymoshenko as a leader that Ukrainians can rally around would do well to remember that the majority of that electorate gave their votes to the man now being held up as a symbol of everything that is wrong in Ukrainian politics.
Turn back the clock further, to the final months of 1991. In August, the Ukrainian Parliament voted overwhelmingly to break away from the Soviet Union and the December referendum on independence passed by a landslide. Ukraine was just one of the many former Soviet republics to declare independence and the West could not have been more joyed at seeing its longtime Soviet rival and adversary disintegrate. In the first presidential elections, the citizens of Ukraine voted Leonid Kravchuk into office as the first President of an independent Ukraine. Just a couple of years later however, that same electorate voted Kravchuk out and handed the presidency over to Leonid Kuchma, the pro-Russian leader who would later appoint Viktor Yanukovych as Prime Minister.
How can we explain the volatile and fickle nature of Ukrainian politics since independence from the Soviet Union? To do so, one must understand the tremendously difficult situation that Ukraine was faced with as the Soviet Union dissolved. As a newly independent country, Ukraine needed to learn how to govern itself, how to create the political institutions and train the necessary officials for the running of a modern state. As a former communist republic attempting to transition to democracy, Ukrainians needed to adapt to new ways of thinking, new norms and rules and needed to create a new political culture. As a former Soviet republic with a state-run economy, Ukraine needed to replace state control with private enterprise and replace state planning with market economics.
Political scientists refer to these simultaneous goals as a “triple transition” and many of the former Eastern Bloc countries attempted to undergo such transitions after the fall of the Soviet Union. If it seems like a daunting task to undertake, that’s because it is. Established democracies like the United States can weather periods of economic downturn without changes to the political system because the citizens of these countries do not equate the state of the economy with the type of political system in place. Citizens in established democracies may vote a government out of office that they deem to have performed poorly during an economic crisis but they are unlikely to storm the parliament and demand that members of that government be put on trial.
Not so in countries attempting a “triple transition”. In these states, the state of the economy and the general perception of the wellbeing of the state serve as a never ending referendum on the validity and efficacy of the political system. The states have no democratic tradition and culture to fall back on and their citizens are much less patient than those of established democracies. The difficulties and pains of the transition from socialism to capitalism can lead to calls to return to the “old way”, echoing the cries of the ancient Israelites to return to Egypt rather than face the hardships of the desert. In Russia, the hardships of the Yeltsin years paved the way for the rise of Vladimir Putin while in the Ukraine, Kuchma benefitted from the lagging economy and eventually used the economic hardships in order to improve relations with Russia.
The impediments to a successful transition to stable democracy are not limited to the economic sphere. A country attempting to make such a transition must be prepared to uproot the previous political culture, not a simple task in the least. In general, Soviet states suffered from political cronyism and corruption, two characteristics that strain the trust of the citizens in the government which is a crucial component of any democratic system. Additionally, many post-Soviet countries find themselves dealing with ultra-national movements that stoke ethnic and national tensions for political gain. Ukraine, with a large Russian speaking population concentrated in the East, is susceptible to such manipulations.
In a situation as fragile as the one in Ukraine, where seemingly everything needs to go right in order for a permanent transition to democracy to be achieved, the West and would-be liberal reformers in Ukraine face an uphill battle. Vladimir Putin’s Russia will certainly not make that struggle any easier, nor has it. As Ukraine’s largest trading partner and the supplier of its natural gas, Moscow has great influence over what transpires in Kiev. It is difficult to see how Putin could allow a country that traditionally has been so important to Russia to simply get up and leave the Russian sphere of influence, as many of the protestors now demand. Putin was furious over Western led regime change in Libya, he will find Western tampering with Russian influence in Moscow’s backyard to be intolerable. Between the inherent difficulties of success and the designs of Ukraine’s powerful neighbor to the East, it would appear that the “triple transition” may not be completed for some time.