Democracy and stability in Ukraine
IED Working Paper by Mathieu Baudier
Kiev, Photo: Andriy155 - CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20938977
The situation in Ukraine was a major concern for the European Democrats during the last European parliamentary elections of spring 2014. Over the previous months, the negotiations over an association agreement with the EU had derailed, a massive movement of protests was met with increasingly lethal state violence, the government got toppled and Russia invaded Crimea. A wave of subversion then shook a number of cities in the east and south of the country, which coalesced into a full-fledged war in Donbas.
On the one hand, it was heartening to watch people raising and struggling for freedom and democracy, with the European values clearly among their references. On the other hand, one could not escape the feeling that the EU had mismanaged this crisis, precisely because of the shortcomings denounced by the European Democrats: too technocratic and overreaching when diplomacy and political responsibility would have been required, while too weak, disunited and lacking appropriate instruments to effectively prevent the escalation into war. Moreover, at a deeper level, the events of early 2014 in Kiev and in Crimea, as well as the disinformation around them, challenge our conceptions of democracy and the legitimacy of State power. The following years have shown the urgency of clarifying our vision of citizens participation, based on responsibility, dignity and rules, against the cynicism and relativism of the demagogues. Three years on, the dust has settled, and the main dynamics which have been set in motion during the acute phase of the crisis can now be better identified. But the international context in which Ukraine evolves has become more unstable. Turkey, a major trading partner, is in crisis. The EU has been destabilised by the refugees crisis. It is unclear whether Russia’s success in Syria will make it more or less aggressive, and, most importantly, whether Donald Trump’s election will radically impact U.S. policy towards Ukraine. It is therefore an appropriate time to take a broad look at this country and the challenges it faces, in order to be able to watch closely the most important issues, as the situation will continue to evolve in unpredictable ways.
The main goal of this essay is to help consider Ukraine as such, rather than through the lense of its significance or insignificance for other international actors. This is a sizable country, with the potential to be prosperous and to contribute to the stability of Europe. Its diversity, its geographical situation and its level of industrialisation make it unavoidable that its internal dynamics impact its complex interactions with broader international systems. The intrinsic relevance of Ukraine is too often overlooked, intentionally or not, in favour of a “buffer” model, where it would simply be an undefined zone of transition between Russia and Central Europe. If the past three years have proven something to many, it is that such views are simplistic and error-prone. However, relevance doesn’t mean coherence. A sense of belonging to Ukraine exists, which is softer, more widespread, more comfortable and more independent from the mother tongue or the region, that extremists care to admit. But whether and how it can give a purpose to a modern and decent State is a question that has not yet been answered.