Ukraine's Crisis of Legitimacy

How the New Government in Kiev Can Save Itself

A rally at Independence Square in Kiev, March 2, 2014. (Konstantin Grishin / Courtesy Reuters)

It’s been a turbulent few months in Ukraine. What began at a summit in Vilnius in November as part of the EU’s ongoing effort to create a Europe “whole and free” now looks increasingly like it could result in a Ukraine that is not whole and perhaps not free. As Ukraine has moved from peaceful demonstrations to lethal battles between police and protesters, and from President Victor Yanukovych’s ouster to Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula, Ukrainians and outside observers alike talk openly of the country's collapse or descent into civil war.

Back in November, it all seemed so simple, or so the story goes. Many observers argued that the offer of the Association Agreement with the EU, which would boost Ukraine’s economic and cultural ties with Europe, presented the country with a simple choice: the path of modernization, liberalization, the rule of law, and greater integration with the West; or the course of authoritarianism, cronyism, stagnation, and integration with Russia. After signaling for months that he would sign the agreement, Yanukovych rejected it. Many thought the gambit could never work, and the crowds that gathered on the Maidan seemed to prove them right. The mass protests, according to most media coverage and commentary, were a sign that Ukrainians, like the Polish and Baltic peoples before them, want the prosperity and predictability that would flow from EU accession.

There is both truth and falsehood in this narrative. For 20 years, Ukraine has done little more than tiptoe toward Europe and a liberal economic model. It is certainly true that Ukrainians are not happy with the result. Elections have been relatively free and competitive, but few other elements of liberalism have followed. Across Ukraine, people express deep dissatisfaction with the corruption and lawlessness that has marked their post-Soviet history. They want security, an end to the abuse of power, a legitimate democratic process, and above all the prosperity that comes from the rule of law. To the extent that these are the values that constitute Europe, Ukrainians want to be part of Europe. 

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