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Ukraine shows when democracies unite, it’s a game-changer

France's President Emmanuel Macron, right, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, left, Prime Minister of Italy Mario Draghi, center, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, second left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Kyiv, Thursday, June 16, 2022.
Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP
France’s President Emmanuel Macron, right, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, left, Prime Minister of Italy Mario Draghi, center, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, second left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Kyiv, Thursday, June 16, 2022. The leaders of four European Union nations visited Ukraine on Thursday, vowing to back Kyiv’s bid to become an official candidate to join the bloc in a high-profile show of support for the country fending off a Russian invasion.

There is the world before and after Feb. 24 — the date when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine has done more to unite the world’s democracies than anything since the end of the Cold War. It’s impossible to imagine a stronger, more convincing and more important game-changing story in modern times about why democracy matters. If a brutal authoritarian regime in Russia attacking the young democracy of Ukraine doesn’t make the case for freedom … what does?

Democratic political parties are in the midst of a perfect storm of populism, extremism, nationalism and authoritarianism. Even before the war started — when COVID brought the world to its knees — authoritarian political parties, governments and leaders were on the rise. Corruption, indifference to voters and opaque party organizations have undermined public confidence in political parties, fueling democratic instability and weakening global institutions.

However, the war in Ukraine provides an opening to strengthen democracies by showing the importance of cross-party collaboration. At the National Democratic Institute (NDI), we believe such cross-party collaboration is a “game-changer” that can unite democracies worldwide and push back on democratic backsliding. NDI is creating new opportunities for democratic parties across ideologies to unite to defend democracy. 

Ukraine is the clearest example yet of party unity being revolutionary for democracy. The U.S. Congress has united around continued military and humanitarian assistance, and sanctions against Russian oligarchs. Instead of falling apart, NATO is expanding to include Finland and Sweden, right on Russia’s borders. Instead of debilitating infighting over Russian oil and gas supplies, the European Union has come together to end Putin’s economic leverage on Europe’s energy supply. And in Ukraine itself, political parties have come together under one flag, one nation and one people to counter Russia’s horrific war of aggression.

Ukraine has a robust democracy. NDI polling consistently shows that 75-80 percent of the people support democracy — and would never cede territory just to have peace.

How could Putin so badly misread the will of the Ukrainians to fight for their freedom?

This passion for democracy didn’t happen overnight. For 30 years, NDI has worked to build democracy in Ukraine, and many of the political leaders in the Ukrainian parliament have learned best democratic practices from NDI across ideological boundaries. And now these political parties have joined hands to defend freedom.

Let us be clear. It is not only Ukraine that is under attack at the moment. Democracy in general is under siege from China, Russia and other authoritarian leaders across the world.

Why? Because the very idea of a thriving Ukrainian democracy poses the biggest threat to Putin and his authoritarian dream. If democracy flourishes in the place that Putin thinks of as the homeland, what are the implications for Moscow itself?

All democracy-loving people who oppose authoritarian control need to come together across the world to take advantage of this moment. Indeed, political parties in the U.S., in the EU and worldwide — across ideologies — have already acted on a national and regional level to support democracy in Ukraine.

In a very polarized U.S. Congress, political parties that rarely agree have joined hands in strong bipartisan support. The Swedish and Finnish government applications to join NATO are the exact opposite of what Putin expected. In the European Parliament — the world’s largest transnational democratic electorate with 400 million voters — support for Ukraine from political parties includes joining the EU, boosting the economy and supporting democracy and the rule of law.

On June 23-24, the EU heads of state will meet to decide on Ukraine’s membership — just four months after Russia’s invasion — a remarkably fast timeline for consideration of any country. The leaders of the political parties of the European Parliament have been urged to decide on the applications not only of Ukraine but also of the Republic of Moldova and Georgia, other countries threatened by Russia. The family of European parties has also created a fast track for Ukrainian parties to join them, including the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, which backs party membership for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servants of the People party.

To highlight the importance of cross-party collaboration, on June 22, the NDI — in partnership with Foreign Policy — will host the conversation“How can officials build political bridges in the wake of democratic crises?” This event will bring together legislators from Ukraine and the United States to discuss the key elements that democratically-minded political parties must take to defend democratic institutions and combat authoritarians.

To defend democracy in Ukraine and elsewhere, democratic political parties around the world must unite. And, as we are witnessing in Ukraine, when democracies unite, it changes the course of history.

Birgitta Ohlsson is the director, Political Parties, for the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

Tags Bipartisanship Democracy Democracy promotion by the United States Joe Biden Politics of the United States Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin

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