Ukraine, Russia, and the Bear Hug of Authoritarianism

Of all the democracies that emerged in the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has suffered the most from Russian interference.

By , an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, and , a professor of political science at Central European University.
A pro-Ukraine demonstrator wearing a face mask holds a placard reading “Hands off Ukraine” during a demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin on Feb. 22.
A pro-Ukraine demonstrator wearing a face mask holds a placard reading “Hands off Ukraine” during a demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin on Feb. 22.
A pro-Ukraine demonstrator wearing a face mask holds a placard reading “Hands off Ukraine” during a demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin on Feb. 22. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

The invasion of Ukraine has already been discussed in the media from several angles, including psychological (e.g., Russian President Vladimir Putin’s megalomania), political (e.g., his fear of democracy), strategic (e.g., the expansion of NATO), and historical (e.g., the reconstruction of the Russian Empire). However, little has been said about Russia’s continuous attacks on the Ukrainian party system and democracy since the country’s independence in August 1991.

Party systems in small states are often conditioned by political developments in their much larger neighboring states, as laid out in a forthcoming book one of us co-edited with Patrick Dumont of the Australian National University. For example, the collapse of democracy in San Marino in the 1920s was caused by the rise of fascism in Italy a few years earlier. Similarly, Iceland’s and Malta’s long struggles for independence from, respectively, Denmark and the United Kingdom shaped the new states’ party systems. In Andorra, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who also served as co-prince of the principality, set an ultimatum on its secretive banking laws that contributed to the first defeat of the liberals. Currently, the relationship to Serbia and Turkey continues to determine the structure of interparty competition in Montenegro and Cyprus, respectively.

This phenomenon shapes the landscape of many party systems around the world, and this is especially true in democracies that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As we explain in our latest monograph on the causes and consequences of the institutionalization of European party systems since 1848, since 2001 the Moldovan party system has been structured by the opposition between supporters of Russia (i.e., communists and socialists) and supporters of integration with the European Union (i.e., liberals and democrats). In Georgia, the 2008 military defeat by Russia precipitated the government party’s defeat, a defeat it hasn’t recovered from.

The invasion of Ukraine has already been discussed in the media from several angles, including psychological (e.g., Russian President Vladimir Putin’s megalomania), political (e.g., his fear of democracy), strategic (e.g., the expansion of NATO), and historical (e.g., the reconstruction of the Russian Empire). However, little has been said about Russia’s continuous attacks on the Ukrainian party system and democracy since the country’s independence in August 1991.

Party systems in small states are often conditioned by political developments in their much larger neighboring states, as laid out in a forthcoming book one of us co-edited with Patrick Dumont of the Australian National University. For example, the collapse of democracy in San Marino in the 1920s was caused by the rise of fascism in Italy a few years earlier. Similarly, Iceland’s and Malta’s long struggles for independence from, respectively, Denmark and the United Kingdom shaped the new states’ party systems. In Andorra, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who also served as co-prince of the principality, set an ultimatum on its secretive banking laws that contributed to the first defeat of the liberals. Currently, the relationship to Serbia and Turkey continues to determine the structure of interparty competition in Montenegro and Cyprus, respectively.

This phenomenon shapes the landscape of many party systems around the world, and this is especially true in democracies that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As we explain in our latest monograph on the causes and consequences of the institutionalization of European party systems since 1848, since 2001 the Moldovan party system has been structured by the opposition between supporters of Russia (i.e., communists and socialists) and supporters of integration with the European Union (i.e., liberals and democrats). In Georgia, the 2008 military defeat by Russia precipitated the government party’s defeat, a defeat it hasn’t recovered from.

Of all the democracies in the region, though, none has suffered as much from Russian interference as Ukraine. The democratic history of Ukraine can be divided into three periods. The first, which goes from the first presidential elections in 1991 to the Orange Revolution at the end of 2004, is characterized by great institutional instability. There were constant changes in the electoral system, and party institutionalization was very low. The only exception was the Communist Party, which as the main opposition party dominated the legislative elections. Most spectacularly, the legislature contained an extremely large number of independent members of parliament: 168 in 1994, 105 in 1998, and 66 in 2002.

Putin’s arrival to power in 1999 soon reshaped Ukrainian politics, especially after his landslide victory in the 2003 Russian legislative elections. The key shift took place in 2004, when the presidential election brought a confrontation between the pro-Russian Party of Regions, founded just three years earlier by lawmakers from the Donbass region and led by then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and the supporters of former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. Evidence of fraud and manipulation by the government during the second round of the presidential elections led Ukrainians to the streets demanding a repeat of the vote in what became known as the “Orange Revolution.” After several days of protests, the Supreme Court declared the need for a repeat election, which was held that Dec. 26 and gave Yushchenko the decisive victory with a difference of more than 7 percentage points.

In the second period of Ukrainian democratic history, the party system was divided into two blocs: a pro-Russian camp led by the Party of Regions—which signed a collaboration agreement with United Russia, Putin’s party, in 2005—and a pro-European, pro-democratic bloc headed by Yushchenko’s liberal-conservative Our Ukraine coalition and by the nationalist bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, a co-leader of the revolution. As the electoral maps of the elections between 2004 and 2014 showed, the blocs had their electoral bases in different parts of the country. The pro-Russian bloc prevailed in the east, including Donbass and Crimea, which, having been part of the Russian Empire since the time of Catherine the Great, is mostly inhabited by Russian speakers. The pro-European bloc dominated the west, where, having largely belonged first to the Kingdom of Poland until its annexation by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1772 and then again to Poland between the world wars, Ukrainian is spoken predominantly. This two-bloc structure was maintained until 2014, when Russian influence crept in once again, leading to the system’s collapse.

The Party of Regions emerged victorious in October 2012 parliamentary elections, and it gained parliamentary support from the Communist Party. The cooperation with the Communists required joining the Eurasian Economic Space—now the Eurasian Economic Union—which Russia had forged earlier that year with Belarus and Kazakhstan. The government’s new direction became clear on Nov. 21, 2013, when it decided to suspend the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, initiated by Tymoshenko three years earlier.

The citizens’ reaction was immediate. On the same day, thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets throughout the country in what has been called the “Revolution of Dignity.” Weeks of street fighting, especially in Kyiv’s Independence Square, forced Yanukovych and his government to sign an agreement on Feb. 21, 2014, to hold early elections and reform the constitution. The events that followed the agreement are known to all: Yanukovych’s flight to Russia the next day, a pro-Russian armed uprising in the Donbass region in early March, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the middle of that month.

The impact of these events on the Ukrainian party system came at once. After the presidential and parliamentary elections held, respectively, in May and October 2014, a new electoral bloc led by Petro Poroshenko, a wealthy entrepreneur, took control. The Opposition Bloc—made up of former members of Yanukovych’s party, whose headquarters were razed to the ground—received only 3 percent of the vote in the presidential elections, losing more than 150 seats in the legislature. The practical secession of some eastern regions contributed further to the transformation of the electoral map, diminishing the chances of pro-Russian forces in government.

Interestingly, the new, third, configuration of democratic Ukraine has not been dominated by nationalist forces. In the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019, a new party, the Servant of the People party founded by the actor Volodymyr Zelensky, swept the country. Contrary to Russian claims of widespread neo-Nazism in the country, Ukrainians rejected the extreme right and opted for a moderate and pragmatic governing force. The appearance of new amateur politicians running on anti-corruption ticket is a regionwide phenomenon. The parties behind them typically collapse in a couple of years, and the popularity of the Servant of the People seemed to follow this trajectory, too. But during 2021, Zelensky managed to consolidate his positions in the polls. Prior to the military attack, his centrist party was ahead of his right-wing and left-wing opponents, suggesting that the Ukrainian system may consolidate further. Putin could not allow this to happen.

The invasion of Ukraine thus represents a dramatic but continuous chain of interference into a neighbor’s domestic politics. The Ukrainian political system has many shortcomings, but its quality of democracy remains well above Russia’s—as shown by the V-Dem and Freedom House indexes—especially since Putin determines Russia’s politics. Let us hope that the Ukrainians are strong enough to resist another hug from the authoritarian bear.

Fernando Casal Bértoa is an associate professor at the University of Nottingham and a co-director of the Research Centre for the Study of Parties and Democracy. Twitter: @casalbertoa

Zsolt Enyedi is a professor of political science at Central European University and the lead researcher at the university’s Democracy Institute. Twitter: @enyedi_zsolt

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