5th Feb 2023


Democracy in Ukraine

Ever since the end of the Cold War, Ukraine represented for many observers just a large former soviet republic too close to Russia to be properly distinguished.

The policies of the two countries seemed so similar that many commentators almost lost hope of ever seeing a truly independent Ukraine in charge of its borders, army and energy security. And yet in November 2004, not more that six months after Europe's historical enlargement, the Ukrainian nation awoke.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The people had enough of corruption, fraud and ignorance of their choices. They took to the streets to manifest their anger and desire for freedom. And it was there in the streets where the wish for a better life of the orange camp proved stronger than the conservatism and inertia of the blue side.

Names like Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko immediately became associated with Ukraine's new independent course, while Viktor Yanukovych, the former premier, was seen as the big loser. This picture was altered a few days ago, on the 3 August, when president Yushchenko nominated his archrival Yanukovych to be prime minister.

The news hit hard at the heart of Orange Revolution supporters. Judging from their comments, their hopes are shattered, the values they fought for seem all lost. But are they really?

Putting a democratic system in place

In 1947 the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made one of his most memorable quotes: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect […] democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried."

It is this democracy that, fifty-seven years later, was promoted by the supporters of the Orange Revolution. And it is exactly democracy that has triumphed in Ukraine. The values of democratic choice, proved in the end stronger than any individual or coalition.

The Orange Revolution was not about giving the state power to Mr Yushchenko or anybody else but about putting in place a democratic system that insured Ukraine's sovereignty and a better life for its people.

On 26 March, during the last election, the people showed their preference. The two factions came close, the difference being around 3% in favour of the now split Orange side. It showed the people were not happy with the slow changes of the past two years but they haven't lost their trust in democracy and they were willing to wait.

It was now down to president Yushchenko, the political symbol of the Orange Revolution, to make his choice for prime minister. His options were limited Mrs Tymoshenko or Mr Yanukovych After a long delay he opted for the later with all the sacrifices such a decision implied. From a purely theoretical perspective, Mr Yanukovych being the leader of the party that got most votes, is entitled to the position.

But there is more to the president's choice; it shows his trust in the durability of the democratic changes he was able to bring to the country. His option carries a risk, a high one, and now he has to be able to defend and oversee it. But more importantly he has to keep his country on track. It won't be easy but if he manages, Ukrainian democracy will come out stronger and more of a unifying force than ever before.

The role of the opposition

The decision of the president was interpreted by many as leaving Mrs Tymoshenko, the real symbol of the Orange Revolution, out in the cold. Instead, she is in for four years of real heat! If any of that revolutionary spirit that energised the masses two years ago is still there then the Yanukovych government will have to face a real opposition both in Parliament and in the media.

In a real democratic system the role of the opposition is as important as the one of the government. Mrs Tymoshenko proved to be a strong and charismatic leader, now she has to show herself as an informed and fierce critic. Heading a strong and unmerciful shadow government can be as challenging as the real job itself.

For young democracies, having an alternation of power and leaders that are capable of great things both in government and opposition is crucial. Moreover if the alternation to power in other Eastern European countries is any indication, Mrs Tymoshenko has a great chance of getting the top position in four years or even earlier. And what a rich political experience will she have by then!

It is clear that the controversial character of the story is the new prime minister, Mr Yanukovych. His past is no indication of how he will perform in his new job. He was for long seen just as the right hand man of a Soviet-style leader. Later, at the height of the Orange Revolution there were rumours he wanted to bring the army out in the streets against his co-nationals.

The right gamble?

As a leader of the opposition he didn't bring much and now he is portraying himself as a reformed politician. Only time will tell what his real nature is. For the moment he has to prove he is worthy of a second chance to the highest office. He has to show he understood the democratic game and he is willing to play by the rules. Until then the responsibility for his actions lies with president Yushchenko who took the gamble. Hopefully it was the right one.

Yet, there is one part of the world where the news about Mr Yanukovych's new job was received with less reservation. The Russian newspapers and opinion leaders congratulated him and some even said they feel vindicated by the nomination. But outside lessons have always slowly entered Russian space.

It must be hard to see a neighbouring country with a similarly difficult history having a strong and blossoming democracy in which political rivals are not jailed but asked to play their rightful role and where the press is free to speak its mind. And for the ones that are less jubilant about the Ukrainian changes, Mr Yanukovych'S nomination at least proves that the Orange Revolution was genuine. There was no outside force trying to put its people into place. The revolution was simply the option of the local population that had enough of tyranny.

Complex and delicate concept

Democracy is a complex and delicate concept, that takes time to grow and flourish both in the political system and in people's hearts. And at no phase is democracy more fragile than in its infancy. The past two years showed the Ukrainian people the benefits and sacrifices it requires, but it also showed its fragility. It should not be forgotten that the people of Ukraine were energised by the democratic models of Europe and the US when they took the streets asking for change and for EU and NATO membership.

It is the EU and the US that became the guarantors of the newly born democracy. The EU through its proximity and historical ties with the country has not only the possibility but also the capacity and duty to keep a very exigent eye on the developments in Ukraine.

Inside the EU, there are certain countries, such as Poland, which have a vested interest in keeping the country on course and should therefore spare no effort in making sure that democracy has solid roots across its eastern border.

But who can talk about democracy in Eastern Europe without mentioning the role of the United States?

Washington's role

The US is the single most important democratic model for the countries in the region and its committed involvement in the area played a crucial role in the post- Cold War transformations. Washington's role in Ukraine's recent history has for sure been overestimated by most commentators. It is true that the US engagement with the Ukrainian democratic forces has always been there, but it has to be stepped up in the near future.

If indeed president Bush wants to see Ukraine in NATO before he leaves office then he has fully understood a large part of his responsibilities towards this young democracy. With European integration having no secure date, NATO membership is the only real external guarantee for the Ukraine's democratic future.

The Americans and the majority of the other NATO members are willing to stretch out a hand. President Yushchenko and prime minister Yanukovych should be ready to grab it if they want to prove they are worthy of leading Ukraine in these historic times.

The author is currently undertaking a PhD research at the Diplomatic Academy of London (DAL) investigating the democratization of Central and Eastern Europe.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Europe is giving more aid to Ukraine than you think

'Europeans need to pull their weight in Ukraine. They should pony up more funds.' Such has been the chorus since the start of the war. The problem is the argument isn't borne out by the facts, at least not anymore.


Democracy — is it in crisis or renaissance?

Countries that were once democratising are now moving in the other direction — think of Turkey, Myanmar, Hungary or Tunisia. On the other hand, in autocracies mass mobilisation rarely succeeds in changing political institutions. Think of Belarus, Iran or Algeria.

More money, more problems in EU answer to US green subsidies

Industrial energy-intense sectors, outside Germany and France, will not move to the US. They will go bust, as they cannot compete in a fragmented single market. So to save industry in two member states, we will kill the rest?

Why the new ECHR Ukraine-Russia ruling matters

The ECHR ruled that Russia was in "effective control" of separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine from 11 May 2014. In doing so, the court has formally acknowledged the inter-state character of the conflict and Russia's culpability for human rights abuses.

Europe is giving more aid to Ukraine than you think

'Europeans need to pull their weight in Ukraine. They should pony up more funds.' Such has been the chorus since the start of the war. The problem is the argument isn't borne out by the facts, at least not anymore.

Latest News

  1. Greece faces possible court over 'prison-like' EU-funded migration centres
  2. How the centre-right can take on hard-right and win big in 2024
  3. Top EU officials show Ukraine solidarity on risky trip
  4. MEPs launch anonymous drop-box for shady lobbying secrets
  5. Hawkish ECB rate-rise 'puts energy transition at risk'
  6. MEPs push for greater powers for workers' councils
  7. How Pavel won big as new Czech president — and why it matters
  8. French official to take on Islamophobia in EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Party of the European LeftJOB ALERT - Seeking a Communications Manager (FT) for our Brussels office!
  2. European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF)Launch of the EPF Contraception Policy Atlas Europe 2023. 8th February. Register now.
  3. Europan Patent OfficeHydrogen patents for a clean energy future: A global trend analysis of innovation along hydrogen value chains
  4. Forum EuropeConnecting the World from the Skies calls for global cooperation in NTN rollout
  5. EFBWWCouncil issues disappointing position ignoring the threats posed by asbestos
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  4. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  5. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  6. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us