Ukraine's Last Best Hope

How Political Reform Can Defend Against Russian Intervention

A rally against the annexation of Crimea in Odessa, March 30, 2014. (Yevgeny Volokin / Courtesy Reuters)

The turmoil unfolding in Ukraine actually provides the people of Ukraine with an opportunity to make their country a better place. Historically, any one of three conditions -- a new, transitional government; dire economic challenges; and the threat of a mass uprising -- has made a shift to a freer, more democratic, transparent, and accountable government attractive to citizens, leaders, and their core supporters. Ukraine is in the unusual situation of meeting all three conditions at once. But to turn opportunity into reality and foster a genuinely free, democratic, and prosperous society, the country’s leaders, as well as the United States and the European Union, need to engage in democratization’s best practices. That means an independent judiciary that enforces free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, and competitive -- not merely free and fair -- elections in which leadership turnover is likely. Establishing these democratic foundations will meet political resistance. Leaders prefer political rules and institutions that insulate them from defeat. But more often than not, they opt for the right choices when circumstances dictate that democratization is their best chance at staying in power.

In Ukraine, of course, there is a hitch: a bear in the woods, in the form of Russian intervention. But in helping Ukraine become a functional democracy, these reforms are also the best defense against Russia because they will give Russian-leaning Ukrainians a stake in the government in Kiev, thus neutralizing the already weak Russian arguments for intervention. So far, however, the EU and the Obama administration seem inclined only to provide the Ukrainian government with economic assistance -- but in a misguided manner that will not foster a solution to Ukraine’s deeper political problems. Economic assistance should be used as the carrot to get Ukraine’s leaders to expand the freedoms and rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in a reformed Ukraine.

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