Courtesy Reuters

Ukraine's Last Best Hope

How Political Reform Can Defend Against Russian Intervention

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.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

The classification of governments is often an exercise in rhetoric. The archetypal democratic leader secures power by winning the support of a great many voters in a competition over policy ideas. The archetypal autocrat wins by providing a small group of critical supporters -- usually key bureaucrats, military leaders, and, sometimes, family members -- with access to enough wealth that they stay loyal to the leadership and remain willing to keep the masses down. In reality, all governance institutions lie somewhere between these extremes. What matters most in creating prosperous, free, and productive societies is the number of people to whom leaders are beholden. And that is why Ukraine, despite its instability, has a great opportunity.

True democracy is the set of governance rules under which winners need the support of many people, not simply a system in which elections occur. Retaining office under such circumstances is extremely difficult -- it involves a relentless battle for good policy ideas and frequent political turnover. Virtually all leaders, if left to their own devices, prefer to restrict political competition so that their survival depends on a smaller group of backers. But in Ukraine, the exceptional circumstances that make leaders actually want to democratize are present: the government is new, broke, and facing mass protests.

First, when a new government comes to power, it is difficult to tell true democrats from would-be autocrats. Would-be autocrats often pretend to be liberal reformers in their first year or so in office, until they consolidate their rule and, crucially, their control of the economy. During this transition period, however, there is an opportunity for reformers to lock in better governance, but only if the right institutions are firmly put in place, so that it would be extremely difficult to tear them down later.

Second, governments often seek foreign assistance when confronted with economic collapse. Donors have tremendous leverage over leaders who are desperate for money, but too often accept promises of reform rather than insisting on reform as a precondition for aid. Once the emergency is over, those promises generally amount to very little as they run up against the difficulties of implementing reforms. Reform raises the risk, for example, of a coup d’état by backers faced with a loss in influence. Economic aid should thus be tied from the start to rigorous political performance standards that show that the leadership is willing to put its own power at risk. If leaders won’t risk genuine democratization when they need aid money, they certainly won’t implement it when they don’t.

Third, mass uprisings are extremely risky business for participants and governments alike. Most governments respond to revolutionary threats by trying to crush them, as Ukraine’s ousted President Viktor Yanukovych tried to do. Suppression often succeeds, especially when the government is flush with cash to pay its security forces. With the exception of Libya, it was the states that lacked budgetary resources that faced the greatest threat from the Arab Spring. Absent the resources to crack down, governments must respond to protesters’ demands, granting freedoms and opening the political process, or risk being swept away. Ukraine has relatively few natural resources, so absent a massive infusion of aid, Ukraine’s government must be responsive to its people.

NOT JUST FREE AND FAIR

The confluence of problems in Ukraine creates an opportunity for Ukrainian leaders, which they can seize if they follow democratic best practices. True democratization follows from an independent free press, free speech, freedom of assembly, an independent judiciary, and, less critically, an independent central bank and an audit of the government’s books. The first three freedoms facilitate coordination among ordinary citizens to make their collective dissatisfaction known to the government. These core coordination freedoms are essential to holding government to account and are easy to implement. Indeed, it is preventing them that is costly -- a lack of these freedoms is likeliest to provoke protests.

An independent judiciary, meanwhile, assures citizens that the government’s promise of core freedoms is credible. For example, the constitutions of China, North Korea, and Ukraine guarantee coordination freedoms, but all of these countries lack independent judiciaries to protect them. Independent judiciaries require judges whose expertise is in the law and not in handing out political favors, and whose terms in office are not at the whim or pleasure of political leaders. Best practice requires longer-term judicial appointments than the length of time those nominating or selecting judges can expect to be in office.

The same logic applies to central banks. Leaders find it hard to resist the temptation to manipulate the economy in the short term for political gain. If they can, they manipulate the money supply to jack up political support. Independent bankers take a longer-term view of economic well-being. The central bank’s independence is thus highly valuable, but it is less critical than an independent judiciary because politically motivated economic manipulation gradually unravels under its own inefficiency, bringing the economy into dire straits and increasing pressure for political change.

An independent audit of the government’s finances lays the groundwork for transparent governance. Amnesty ought to follow the first audit for those found to have previously engaged in corrupt practices. One way to push officials to govern on behalf of the people is to reveal their misconduct, forgive it once, and then give them the means to remove anyone in the future who is found guilty of corruption.

Free speech, free assembly, and a free press are virtually costless to provide and empower the people to hold government to account. An independent judiciary and an independent central bank further limit a government’s ability to bypass the people. All these freedoms and guarantees make it harder for the government to hold on to power, so we can expect that Ukraine’s politicians will resist quick implementation of them; they will likely argue that such reforms must wait until the crisis blows over. Such reluctance may help politicians, but it won’t help the Ukrainian people. By making economic relief contingent on reforms, the leadership should find implementing change more attractive than continuing to go head-to-head with mass uprising and the threat of economic collapse.

Absent from this list of best practices is the notion that a country needs to hold free and fair elections. Although highly desirable, free and fair elections are neither necessary nor sufficient for democratization. Consider Hong Kong. For most of its history as a British territory, Hong Kong had no elections but was run in a transparent, accountable way that protected the freedoms of its citizens, guaranteed by an independent judiciary.

Tanzania today illustrates that free and fair elections are not enough to assure genuine democratization. Voters have easy access to polling places, ballots are properly counted, and results are honestly reported. Nevertheless, it has a political system that nearly guarantees the government’s domination by a single political party, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi. The methods employed by the Tanzanian government are similar to those that have been used in Ukraine, at least under the previous government, making the lessons of Tanzania especially pertinent.

Despite having a first-past-the-post electoral system, which normally induces two-party competition, the Tanzanian government manages to sustain more than a dozen political parties. A party needs only one more vote in a district than the second-place party to win a seat in the national parliament, thus ensuring that the dominant Chama Cha Mapinduzi can control the government with as little as five to ten percent of the vote. As should be expected, the small vote margin needed to win in a given district encourages government expenditures that emphasize private rewards and corruption over effective public policy.

Like Tanzania, Ukraine has encouraged the formation of far more political parties than its electoral rules ought to support. In a 2012 rule seemingly designed to bias electoral outcomes in favor of larger parties that could benefit from electoral fraud, parties were not allowed to form pre-election blocs that would have facilitated pooling voters. There is no discernible evidence today of material change in this rule, which effectively reduces the vote total needed to win office, thus promoting a corrupt, exclusive government. But actual democracy requires that free and fair elections are genuinely competitive.

THE DEMOCRATIC PLAYBOOK

One proposal for Ukraine to put these best practices into effect is through a federal form of government. Federalism is indeed a common solution to military threats to the viability of a government, since it stimulates economic competition across a country’s regions, certainly a good thing for growth and prosperity. But federalism also fractures the size of the coalition of supporters needed to secure political power. That fracturing, in turn, fosters corruption and cronyism as the means to stay in power. Federalism with a strong central government could prove beneficial in Ukraine. But the sort of highly decentralized weak federalism that some observers have proposed is a recipe for political failure.

Without federalism, however, one may well wonder how the large Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine could be satisfied with a government in Kiev. But Ukraine is hardly unique in having at least two large linguistic groups within its borders. When large numbers of people in a country’s population are hindered in opportunities to gain, for example, employment in the government because they do not speak the official national language, they will naturally be disgruntled and inclined to protest. If they can freely articulate their dissatisfaction in a political environment that makes the leadership partially dependent on winning their support in order to hold power, then their grievances are likely to be addressed, because power-seeking politicians will see that doing so is the path to their own success. Canada, for example, has done just fine by adopting bilingualism. Multilingual India has not Balkanized, as many feared it would in the 1950s. The Ukrainian government should recognize and embrace Russian, rather than working to keep Russian-speakers on the outside. And an independent judiciary capable of enforcing anti-discrimination laws will go a long way toward making Ukraine an inclusive society, as well as removing a potential casus belli for Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Economic disparities are another source of national division that can foment mass uprisings. Despite often being considered a rust belt at an economic disadvantage, eastern Ukraine has considerably higher per capita incomes than western Ukraine. This naturally provokes dissatisfaction among western Ukrainians, who likely attribute the disparity at least in part to Yanukovych and other previous governments’ pro-Russian (that is, pro-eastern) policies. At the same time, it is to be expected that in difficult economic times, the wealthier, Russian-speaking parts of the country would be called upon to subsidize the poorer parts. Progressive taxation is a mainstay of democratic societies. Since those in the east resent transferring money to parts of the country perceived to be opposed to them, separatist pressure mounts.

Again, democratization’s best practices can help solve these problems. Once party blocs are allowed, competition over resources will be turned into a campaign policy debate. And it is likely that the combination of an independent judiciary and coordination freedoms will result in a more balanced approach to economic redistribution in which tax policy protects all citizens from too extravagant a shift of resources from one group to another. History reveals what happens when a government dominated by one part of a country fails to rein in such shifts. Such a failure stoked the 1971 Bangladesh War and the creation of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan. Competition over resources was also a central issue (this time, masquerading as religious differences) in the struggle in Northern Ireland, which was resolved through cooperative democratic institutions and judicious power sharing enshrined in the Belfast Agreement.

In Ukraine’s case, it will be important to get the national balance of economic and political power right before offering massive international aid. Aid before such political reforms will do nothing to earn the support of Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians who almost certainly will not be its beneficiaries. Rather, a modest amount of aid either directly from the United States or jointly from the United States and members of the European Union should be given now to keep the interim government in Kiev afloat, with each subsequent tranche sitting in an escrow account to be released only on the basis of predetermined benchmarks for political reform. The judiciary must be the first benchmark. Ukraine does not have a strong tradition of protecting coordination freedoms -- especially freedom of assembly. For these freedoms to be meaningfully assured now, the government must first establish a truly independent judiciary.

With the rule of law in place, the aid donors should release a larger tranche of escrowed funds to facilitate economic adjustments and reform. Then the Ukrainian government should put coordination freedoms into place. When those who currently oppose the government are confident in their rights and, therefore, the opportunity to prosper within a new Ukraine, additional aid should follow, along with national elections scheduled about six months in advance. Eligibility for office should be based on rules that do not single out specific individuals to ban them from office, as has previously been the case. Parties and their campaigns should neither be funded by the government nor precluded from coordinating with one another. The government should not favor some parties over others with regard to opportunities to hold rallies, marches, or media events.

The elections currently scheduled for May 25 ought to be postponed so that there is time first to put these vital foundations of real democracy in place. Parties should have time to consolidate in order to maximize their chance of actually winning. Voters should know what their choices are and should have the opportunity to assess those choices in a less volatile environment. They should know that they can freely assemble to support or oppose candidates and election programs, but all that is currently possible. A rush to vote is not equivalent to establishing a government that is as representative as possible of the will of voters.

THE BEST DEFENSE

Apart from all of these needed reforms, of course, there is the question of what to do about the Russian bear in the woods. Here, a few principles should govern the Ukrainian government’s response. Self-determination is a fundamental right advanced by coordination freedoms and competitive elections. The way to win the support of blocs of citizens is to provide them with effective public policies that advance their well-being. When governments fail to do that, then citizens naturally look for alternatives, either by selecting a new government or, in extremis, seeking to secede. Secession is the manifestation of failed government; precluding it by fiat is not the solution. Rather, providing incentives not to secede is the goal, attainable by structuring government so that leaders need the support of a broad base of society to stay in power and, consequently, must reward many people through effective policy.

Democratic societies, in which leaders cater to as many people as possible, are virtually immune to coups, revolution, and civil war. The French political system withstood citizens taking to the barricades in the late 1960s, as did the U.S. political system during the Vietnam War. India, likewise, has withstood regular protests of government policies over the years because, in the end, most citizens recognize that they can redress grievances through normal political channels if enough of them express dissatisfaction with their government’s policies. To win over the hearts and minds of pro-Russian Ukrainians, the government in Kiev needs to make Ukrainian citizenship more valuable than defecting to Russia. But so far, the government’s responses to the unrest in eastern Ukraine have failed to do so. Kiev ought to balance resource allocations fairly, assure the freedoms and rule of law, and then gamble on a self-determination referendum later. Only then will the new government be able to convince many eastern Ukrainians that it is better to be Ukrainian than Russian.

During the Cold War, Western leaders seized any opportunity to score points against Russia. But today is not the Cold War, and a decade of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has tarnished the allure of military intervention. It is almost unthinkable today that the United States or NATO would intervene in Ukraine to thwart Russian ambitions. But given the ineffectiveness so far of sanctions, rather than confronting Russia, Western politicians today should focus on promoting a free and prosperous society in Ukraine. In the long run, such a transformation will prove to be a stalwart opponent to Russia’s expansion; democracies are hard to push around. The stars are aligned in Ukraine’s favor. Making real change toward democracy is the best weapon in the West’s arsenal.

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