WORLD AFFAIRS.  What’s the condition of democracy in Ukraine after one year of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency? He and his supporters say democracy is alive and well. His critics say it’s dead or decaying. Who’s right?

Obviously, the answer depends on what you mean by democracy.

Here’s a very short and, I submit, non-controversial list of modern democracy’s minimal features:

(1)  A balance of power among the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.
(2)  Rule of law rooted in independent courts and a functioning constitution.
(3)  Fair and free elections involving genuine parties.
(4)  Freedom of assembly and speech.

Here’s why these features matter.

A balance of power precludes the over-concentration of power in the hands of any one individual or institution — as in a monarchy or dictatorship — and guarantees the independence of courts. Neutral laws determine how those branches of power interact with one another and with society; laws can be neutral only if they are interpreted by an independent judiciary and grounded in a consensual document known as a constitution. The individuals who run the executive and the legislature are not appointed by some power-holder, but, acting as representatives of social and political interests called parties, are elected by the people. Elections and rule of law cannot be meaningful unless citizens and policymakers are able to meet and speak openly and freely.

Where does Yanukovych’s Ukraine stand on this scale? For the sake of convenience, let’s assign scores of 3, 2, 1, or 0 for each of these categories (with 3 representing fully democratic and 0 fully non-democratic) for both Yanukovych and his predecessor, former President Viktor Yushchenko.

(1)  Yanukovych has concentrated all power in his hands, thereby making the Parliament a rubber-stamp institution and the courts, anything but independent under Yushchenko, completely subordinate to the all-powerful president’s whims. Yushchenko: 2, Yanukovych: 0.

(2)  Under Yanukovych, as under Yushchenko, some laws are honored, some are not. The Constitution and judicial independence are adhered to when it’s convenient for the president and violated when it’s not. Yushchenko: 1, Yanukovych: 1.

(3)  The elections that brought Yanukovych to power were fair and free, but the October 2010 local elections that produced Party of Regions’ hegemony were not. The regime is doing its best to destroy the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, to support the extremist Svoboda Party, and to entrench the Party of Regions as the only game in town. Yushchenko: 3, Yanukovych: 1.

(4)  As a whole range of independent international observers have noted, freedom of assembly and speech has taken a big hit under Yanukovych. Yushchenko: 3, Yanukovych: 1.

Add up the scores and you get 9 for Yushchenko (out of a possible 12) and 3 for Yanukovych. That’s quite a difference, and Ukrainians feel it. Even if you bump up Yanukovych’s scores by 1 or 2 points — on the grounds that I was just too darned harsh — the trend is still downward. Translated into letter grades, Yushchenko gets a B and Yanukovych gets a D, or possibly a C-minus. He hasn’t yet failed, but he’s failing and might want to consider remedial work in democracy summer school.

Whimsy aside, the important question is this: Is Yanukovych’s Ukraine, with a score of 3, still a democracy or has he ya-nuked it? If you figure that a 6 would be the minimum for a really crummy democracy, then the answer is: he’s ya-nuked it. If you’re inexplicably generous and bump up Yanukovych’s scores by 1 or 2 points, then his Ukraine doesn’t even qualify as a really crummy democracy.

Now, four more questions:

Is this the best way to promote Ukraine’s integration with Europe? Take a wild guess.

Is this the best way to promote Ukraine’s transformation into Belarus? Take an even wilder guess.

Is this the best way to transform Ukraine into a backward province of Russia? Go ahead and hit the ball outta the park.

Finally, the question that’s dearest to Yanukovych: Is this the best way to promote stability and order? The Ukrainian president thinks so, but any political science undergraduate could tell you why he’s dead wrong. For one thing, every rapid institutional shift is destabilizing. For another, every rapid institutional shift away from democracy is especially destabilizing if citizens are not compensated for their loss of freedom with economic goodies or a feel-good ideology. As Ukrainians know all too well, their living standards are in free fall and their identity is under assault. Ironically, by ya-nuking democracy Yanukovych is also ya-nuking his presidency and, ultimately, Ukraine.

Back in the days of the Cold War, that kind of irrational behavior was known as Mutually Assured Destruction — and the solution to MADness was nuclear disarmament.

So how about dismantling those ya-nukes, Mister President, before you destroy yourself and your country?

Alexander J Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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