Lost in the shadow of the disastrous Asian tsunami was Victor Yushchenko’s win in the repeat Ukrainian elections. If the Ukraine manages to successfully become a stable, liberal, democracy then Yushchenko, who will be sworn as Ukraine’s new President today, may be regarded as Ukraine’s George Washington.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine has been a one-party, authoritarian, illiberal democracy. Autocratic rulers use the results of “elections” to validate their governments but in the end govern with the same heavy hand as when Ukraine was a Soviet Republic. The current ruling party in the Ukraine has even kept close ties with mother Russia. An arrangement that Vladmir Putin (another popularly-elected autocrat whose tenure in office is marked by expansion of presidential power and debasement of other institutions) has so favoured, that he worked actively for the election of the current prime minister to Ukraine’s presidency. Many in eastern Ukraine have favoured this arrangement, but at the expense of liberty and true democracy in the Ukraine – the Russian example with democracy is hardly one worth following and Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states provide better examples of how eastern European countries can transition to liberal democracies.
In Ukraine, Yushchenko has defied the status quo and forced the country to have a truly bipartisan election with two viable candidates. And so Ukrainians are divided, literally between East and West. The Eastern part of the country is pro-Russian and supported the ruling party, the Western part pro-Europe and supported Yushschenko. For Yushschenko to be truly the founder of a new era in liberal self-government in the Ukraine, both sides will have to accept his authority. Recalling the American experience of political divisions that coincide with geographic ones in 1860, this may be a difficult task and may call on Yushschenko to be his country’s Abraham Lincoln as well. But in defying authoritarianism, resisting attempts to undermine the elections (including attempts on his own life), and giving, for the first time, Ukrainians a true choice in leadership and vision for the future, Yushchenko has taken a critical first step toward true liberal democracy.
As brave as Victor Yushchenko has been and as important as his role in all of this is, as is always the case with turning points in history, he is not the only hero of this story. The Ukrainian people themselves are equally important. Ukrainians turned out to vote in astounding numbers. Much has been made in recent years of low voter turnout in the U.S. Yet, with our most recent election and the perception by many that this was a critically important election, we have recently had a vote with record turn out. So too did Ukrainians recognize the importance of this first election with a true choice, with true ramifications for future of the country. And, whether they agreed with remaining tightly in the Russian sphere of influence, or thought prosperity lay with turning toward the West, they came out to voice their opinion with their vote. A similar phenomenon was observed recently in Afghanistan, and we can only hope Iraqis, facing physical danger, will, in large numbers, also seize the opportunity to shape their own destiny.
But the critical step taken by the Ukrainian people toward establishing true liberal democracy, was not simply the act of voting itself. That they had done before, albeit without as much true choice in candidates. Rather, it was the Orange Revolution - the peaceful protests after the election that forced a re-vote. This established several important principles of liberal democracy: 1) it exercised the people’s right to peaceably assemble and express views dissenting from the government. 2) it forced the government to acknowledge that elections must be transparent and votes must be fairly counted, and 3) it established the fundamental right and ability of the people to self-govern. More than the outcome of any vote, the Orange brigades established that the government belongs to the people and governs only by their consent. The people’s will indeed determines the direction of the country. In governing themselves as individuals by eschewing violence, Yushshenko’s followers demonstrated definitively that the Ukrainian people possess the capacity for self-government.
However, as mother Russia demonstrates, democratic government isn’t always liberal government. It remains to be seen whether Yushshenko’s government will respect and protect the rights of his opposition minority. In his book, The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria discusses the parameters that are associated with the development of successful liberal democracies. He notes the importance of capitalist wealth – the earned (produced) wealth of nations. Historically, countries with a per capita GDP of $6,000 in current U.S. dollars are the ones that succeed in forming stable, liberal democracies. Ukraine, by this reckoning, is not quite there and has a greater struggle ahead if she is to be successful. By this standard, Zakaria lists the countries that are ready, economically, for stable liberal democracy: Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Malaysia, Turkey, Morroco, and of the former Soviet Republics, Belarus. At first blush, this would seem a gross oversimplification. However, the relationship between capital and freedom is a complex one. Zakaria also notes that states with intrinsic natural resource wealth (such as oil), tend not to be fertile grounds for liberal democracy. In this case, the state does not depend on production and economic growth for wealth. In other words, it is not beholden to expanding a tax base, but rather has intrinsic wealth. Since the state has no dependence on the population for wealth, it is also not beholden to the population and has no incentive to create the conditions necessary for the production of wealth – the conditions of liberal society. Production requires private ownership, which requires personal property rights, which then requires codification of the protection of those rights. Commerce requires freedom to travel, free speech to advertise, and therefore the codification of these freedoms. This is, of course, the principal of engagement with China – the notion that economic reform must ultimately bring with it political reform. As an example, Zakaria sites the growing number of lawsuits against the government in China over the last several years (and the growing ability of plaintiffs to win such lawsuits) over issues of private ownership (90,557 suits in 1997 compared to 0 in 1984).
Certainly there is room for debate regarding the best way to ultimately bring about the end of the Communist regime in China. However, the underpinning of the argument is the realization, evident in the Russian experience so far with democracy, that democracy is not intrinsically a guarantor of liberty. Madison’s concern for tyranny of the majority (or at least tyranny of elected leaders) is a valid one. More important than democracy is a system that protects individual liberties and freedoms. A system in which private ownership is respected, personal choices about one’s life and one’s property can be made, and the ability of individuals to engage in any activity that is peaceable, engaged in by mutual consent, and does not infringe upon the rights of others is generally protected (or in Jefferson’s words, “while restraining men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement…”). Zakaria keenly recognizes the role of the state in this regard. There must be civic institutions, both political and economic, and both governmental and private to create this atmosphere. There must be a codification of rights that limit the power of government, and a government with the power to enforce laws protecting the rights of individuals. In short, a balance of economic (and to some degree political) power between the private sector and the state, and a balance of political power within branches of government. Checks and balances both between federal and local authority as well as within federal government itself. Only in this way can a government be strong enough to govern its people, and limit itself. Hardly a new concept, Mr. Madison, Mr. Hamilton, and Mr. Jay expressed it quite eloquently over 200 years ago.
Which brings me to the unsung heroes of the Ukrainian Orange revolution. The courts. In overturning the results of the initial fraudulent election, the Ukrainian Supreme Court established a principle of independent judiciary. The Court was not a puppet to the governing regime and its party, but an independent authority apart from the legislature and executive. Without credible opposition before now, certainly the justices were appointed by leaders from the pro-Russian, outgoing party. But, they refused to simply be an organ of the administration. They refused to be window dressing on Potemkin democracy. This is the Marbury vs. Madison moment in the history of Ukrainian democracy, the assertion of principles of independent judicial review. Nor will the courts be the pawns of Yushshenko’s new government. Just twenty-four hours before the re-vote, the court ruled that restrictions on home balloting, that Yushshenko wanted and won in the compromise that led to a new vote, violated the voting access rights of those that were home bound. Accommodations for such voting had to be made in the eleventh hour before the election. Again the court has asserted the principles of judicial independence and review. And, in accepting the court’s ruling, the previous ruling party who had resorted to fraud and poisoning to undermine the electoral process and retain political power has solidified the courts authority, and perhaps unwittingly made their own contribution to the stability of Ukranian democracy.
The challenges facing the Ukraine are hard, but the result of this peaceful (so far) struggle for power is the birth of a truly democratic government in which principles of consent of the governed, fair and transparent elections, freedoms of assembly and speech, and checks and balances in government have been established. It is a good start, and hopefully this newborn democracy will grow and mature into a stable, liberal, and prosperous one.