Ukraine’s Democracy Is (Almost) All Grown Up

If Zelensky can build on his predecessor’s legacy, he may just succeed in furthering Ukraine’s economic growth and drawing the country still closer to the West.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech during celebrations to mark Ukraine’s 28th Independence Day in Kyiv on Aug. 24.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech during celebrations to mark Ukraine’s 28th Independence Day in Kyiv on Aug. 24. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Since Volodymyr Zelensky, a politically untested television star, was elected to the Ukrainian presidency earlier this year, most observers have focused their attention on him. This is understandable, but the real story behind Ukraine’s politics resides in the interplay of three forces that are only partially susceptible to Zelensky’s influence: political and economic institutions, civil society, and political and economic elites. Zelensky’s success or failure as president will largely depend on how well he plays the cards he was given.

Despite his many critics, former President Petro Poroshenko consolidated Ukraine’s state, nation, democracy, and economy; pivoted the country toward the West; and saved Ukraine from the mercenaries and Russian troops that commandeered its eastern stretches. He built an army, reformed the regular police and streamlined the security police, cleaned up the deeply corrupt banking sector, stabilized the currency, opened up the media, and rationalized energy prices. He oversaw reforms of education and medicine and encouraged a revival of Ukrainian language and culture. He won independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate and devolved authority and resources to local governments.

For all its faults, Ukraine today is a centrist democracy with a division of powers among more or less independent and autonomous executive, legislative, and judicial branches. These power centers play by the rules of the constitution or, at worst, invoke the constitution while hoping to justify their violations. Left- and right-wing extremists who reject the democratic rules of the game garner only a few percentage points of the popular vote—far fewer than their counterparts in Germany and France.

Ukraine also has an essentially market-based, though imperfectly functioning, economy. The oligarchs still play an excessive role, but the overall system is capitalist and has points of dynamism, notably in the information technology sector, agriculture, and textiles. GDP has been growing over the last two years, despite the fact that the country is at war and managing 1.6 million internally displaced people.

The fact that democratic and market institutions are already in place means that Zelensky can focus on reforming that which exists rather than losing time constructing institutions from scratch. He has also been able to generate excitement among the foreign investor community, precisely because his promises of reform rest on solid foundations. At the same time, these institutions will constrain Zelensky and complicate reforms that aim at full-scale change.

Ukraine observers in the tradition of the late political theorist Samuel Huntington have worried that inexperienced democracies are prone to what he called “excess” participation by parochial civic groups, whose competing demands can “overload” weak state institutions and cause political instability. In Ukraine’s case, such a view is incorrect, and not just because its state institutions are not weak.

Ukraine has a rapidly modernizing and politically moderate civil society, which has repeatedly demonstrated its interest in universalistic values and political secularism. According to the writers Sophie Falsini, Anton Oleinik, and others, members of almost all of the country’s main social and ethnic groups participated in the Euromaidan revolution in 2014. And contrary to the Kremlin’s depictions of Ukraine as anti-Semitic and ethnically intolerant, the Jewish, Russophone Zelensky won 73 percent of the vote in the April presidential election, with large majorities or pluralities in every region of the country. Good governance and the economy, not ethnicity or the language of the candidates, were the citizenry’s main concerns. That was repeated in the parliamentary election of July 21, in which four centrist parties passed the 5 percent barrier.

In short, the Ukrainian state is on a more solid footing than Western analysts frequently believe, because it consists of consolidated institutions that are supported by civil society’s freely attained national consensus. Democracy is working as it should—it is stabilizing and becoming more appreciated by the public as an intrinsic good worth striving for.

A vigorous civil society poses opportunities for Zelensky. He can harness popular desires for deep institutional and economic reform, thereby overriding elite opposition and institutional blockages. At the same time, Zelensky is bound by his own campaign rhetoric, which promised immediate positive change and avoidance of corruption. Popular expectations are high, and Zelensky will be hard pressed to meet them. Some disillusionment is inevitable.

Although Zelensky’s Servant of the People party was given a strong mandate in the parliamentary election, winning over half of the seats, it is on notice by a public that has successfully demonstrated its ability to push out underperforming governments in 2004 and 2014. The challenge for Zelensky and his party is to engage enough of civil society in a sufficient reform to prevent the inevitable disillusionment from undermining his legitimacy.

Servant of the People may now have an outright majority, but there are questions about individual representatives’ records. Zelensky’s advisor Dmytro Razumkov recently said that about 20 percent of the deputies are “deplorables,” meaning that they are unethical and concerned only with self-enrichment. Another deputy has said, in a private communication, that only 15 percent are highly committed reformers. The remainder, some two-thirds, may be regular people (one deputy is a weightlifter, another is a wedding photographer) who lack a clear sense of how parliament works. Most of them probably believe they will not be reelected for the same reason they got elected: They are political nonentities who happened to be preferable to the incumbents precisely because they were not incumbents. But this very same quality will make them susceptible to outside influence and bribery. Zelensky will have to exert control over his camp following, and a concentration of power in his hands is thus almost inevitable. Such an outcome will not be bad if Zelensky proves to be a masterful policymaker and his appointees will be professionals. Short of that, over-centralization could make him prone to mistakes, while absolute power could, as Lord Acton once said, corrupt absolutely. Fortunately, existing institutions and societal expectations will probably keep that concentration in check.

In order to bring about reform, Zelensky will have to keep his new political elite unified and free from corruption. He claims to want to end parliamentary deputies’ immunity from civil prosecution so as to discourage the use of parliamentary seats for economic gain. That was easy to proclaim during the campaign but will be harder to bring about now that the legislature is packed with his supporters. He will have to demonstrate his (and his administration’s) independence from the oligarchs, and he has said that the economic elite and oligarchs would agree to a new “business contract” if business could be protected by an impartial legal system and conducted honestly. But reforming the courts and protecting property rights would also weaken the same rent-seeking elite’s control of the economy, thus making for a tough balancing act.

Zelensky will have to build on the institutional base inherited from Poroshenko, while keeping his constituents in civil society and business happy—and learning how to be a reformer and not a revolutionary. Revolution is easy: It entails destroying existing institutions and opponents. Reform, by contrast, is extremely hard. Reformers have to work within the institutions they desire to change and with the elites they desire to weaken. Unlike revolution, reform is painfully slow and never linear.

All of this maneuvering will have to be done while the war in eastern Ukraine continues. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a crucial interest in Zelensky’s failure. Any compromise short of vassal status will never be enough to satisfy the Kremlin’s demands. Unless Putin leaves office—which, in the face of ongoing protests, is not quite as unlikely as it seemed just a short time ago—Russian pressure will continue. Zelensky has signaled some willingness for flexibility in dealing with the Kremlin, but the logic of Ukraine’s state-building requires that he follow his predecessor’s assertive defense of his country’s independence. The good news for Zelensky is that, although Putin and the Kremlin remain unpredictable, the parliamentary election shows Russia’s continuous loss of influence over Ukraine’s politically sophisticated public.

If Zelensky can effectively navigate the obstacles and opportunities ahead of him and build on Poroshenko’s institutional legacy, the new president may just succeed in furthering Ukraine’s economic growth, reducing corruption, and drawing Ukraine still closer to the West. In that case, Ukraine could really reach a breakthrough, becoming an Eastern European tiger. If, alternatively, Zelensky fails to deliver the promised big bang, he will—barring some catastrophe involving Russia—likely revert to the pattern of sustained evolutionary reform pursued by Poroshenko.

There is thus cause for guarded optimism, as well as guarded pessimism, precisely because the future of Ukraine is not in the hands of only one individual or institution. As in consolidated democracies, Ukraine’s president and parliament will be both supported and constrained by a watchful civil society and a network of political, economic, and social institutions. With a little luck and continued Western support, Ukraine could join the ranks of those democracies in the next five years.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

Dennis Soltys is an adjunct professor in the Department of Public Administration and International Development at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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