Foreign Policy

Democracy part of solution to all of Ukraine’s challenges

Considerable attention in Washington these days is focused, appropriately, on Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. President Petro Poroshenko argued persuasively in his recent address to a joint session of Congress that the aggression against Ukraine has become “one of the worst setbacks for the cause of democracy in the world in years.”

He also predicted that “the outcome of the war will determine whether we will be forced to accept the reality of a dark, torn and bitter Europe as part of a new world order.” The fundamental right of Ukrainians to form their own opinion about the future of their country lies at the core of this struggle. The conflict thus has repercussions well beyond Ukraine’s borders.

{mosads}Given the enormity of the stakes and in spite of the ceasefire signed in early September, it seems unlikely that hostilities will end soon. The Russian government must be held accountable for its aggression and the international community must firmly support Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. But even if a formula could be found to resolve the military conflict tomorrow, Ukraine would still face enormous pressure from its neighbor to the East and challenges from within the country.

The conflict has united Ukrainians in many ways, but divisions remain between the beneficiaries and victims of corruption, between those who are impatient for reform and those who wish to preserve the status quo, and between those who support the political changes of the past year and those who now feel left out of the process. Frustration is feeding support for more extremist groups, some of which are armed. The economy is in crisis, energy is in short supply as winter approaches and corruption remains endemic.

Many Ukrainians believe that democracy is one of the most effective tools they can use to meet these challenges. They are convinced that the best way for Ukraine to emerge victorious is to achieve a successful democratic transition this time around, in contrast to failed attempts in the 1990s and 2000s.

Parliamentary elections scheduled for Oct. 26 will be pivotal for this transition. Credible parliamentary elections are necessary to enable the new government to pursue reforms and find an acceptable solution to the conflict. Conversely, a flawed process could deepen public frustration and weaken resistance to external security threats.

The war with Russia and an imperfect electoral framework present obstacles to the integrity of the elections. However, Ukraine demonstrated in a snap presidential election in May that it is capable of conducting democratic elections, even in the face of grave security threats. Compensating for the weaknesses in the electoral framework will require additional but achievable investments of political will.

I recently led a mission of the Washington, DC-based National Democratic Institute to assess the political environment in advance of the parliamentary elections. One of our most striking findings was that a transition “from protest to politics” is underway. Many of the Euromaidan movement’s young leaders from civil society and journalism are running as candidates in these elections, either through established or new parties. This trend offers hope that democracy is putting down deeper roots than it has in the past.

The delegation identified a number of steps that authorities and political parties can take now to improve prospects for a democratic process. These include election and security officials using the authority they have to further defend enfranchisement and electoral security; parties and candidates campaigning constructively on issues citizens care about rather than using divisive or inflammatory tactics; all participants rejecting partisan abuses of state resources; and campaigns disclosing election-related financial information. In the longer term, urgent reforms are needed in the electoral framework, campaign and party finance, media transparency and women’s participation.

In a speech to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York last week, President Obama stressed the administration’s renewed commitment to defending democracy around the world. As he put it, “When people are free to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable, governments are more responsive and more effective…When citizens are free to organize and work together across borders to make our communities healthier, our environment cleaner, and our world safer, that’s when real change comes.”

These words are welcome. The situation in Ukraine provides an opportunity to match them with concrete deeds of support. With leadership from the U.S., the international community of democracies should work in partnership with Ukrainians to ensure credible elections; a robust and independent media; reconciliation across the country’s divisions; strong, issue-based political parties; a representative and accountable parliament; transparent and responsive governance; and meaningful citizen engagement in all aspects of political life.

Kaufman served in the Senate from 2009 to 2010 and is a member of the board of directors of the National Democratic Institute. 


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