The First Annual TCUP Conference kicked off on Monday, February 1, 2021. Organized around the question “Why Is Ukraine a Democracy?,” the first panel addressed the role of history in Ukraine’s democratic development.
There was no consensus among panelists regarding the time and place of the roots of Ukraine’s democracy, or around the most significant historical figures who influenced Ukraine’s democracy—Mykhailo Drahomanov, Vyacheslav Lypynsky, Pylyp Orlyk, and Mykhailo Hrushevsky were just a few of the names mentioned. Moderator Serhii Plokhii further noted that not only does history play a role in Ukraine’s democratic development, democracy also plays a role in our views of Ukraine’s history. This interplay framed the panel, which addressed democratic institutions throughout different points in Ukraine’s history, as well as the role of regionalism and competing historical narratives.
Several panelists discussed the relationship between democratic institutions and the “intellectual foundations” of democracy in Ukraine. Nataliya Kibita suggested that the Ukrainian experience of democracy is more important for Ukraine remaining a democracy than having a strong idea of what democracy is. Oleksandra Gaidai asked related questions that considered the experience of democracy in people’s everyday lives. She mentioned that many people still see democracy simply as competitive elections, without considering other factors that exist in democracies, such as campaigns or the importance of reforms to support the rule of law, as Dominique Arel noted. And, as Yaroslav Hrytsak argued, the core of Ukraine’s identity is its political structures, not language or ethnicity, as is commonly assumed.
The panelists seemed to agree that the immediate post-Soviet period has had an enormous influence on Ukraine’s democracy. Hrytsak mentioned (and Dominique Arel reiterated) the twin political crises in Ukraine and Russia in 1993. In Ukraine, then-President Leonid Kravchuk fought with future President Leonid Kuchma over the distribution of power in Ukraine at the same time that massive numbers of coal miners went on strike in the Donbas. In Russia, President Boris Yeltsin clashed with the Russian parliament about a similar disagreement about executive-legislative power distribution. Whereas in Ukraine, the disagreement was resolved with Kravchuk negotiating with the miners and, ultimately, a peaceful transition of power to Kuchma’s presidency in 1994, in Russia, Yeltsin called in a military strike to resolve the crisis and eventually was able to consolidate power. As Hrytsak put it, Ukraine “passed the test for democracy,” whereas Yeltsin set a precedent for Vladimir Putin to continue the task of consolidating power. While there is no one single explanation for why Ukraine became a democracy and Russia did not, Ukrainian leaders made decisions that took Ukraine down a different path from the Russian Federation. And, as Gaidai pointed out, it now seems obvious that this is how democracy developed in Ukraine, but in the 1990s, this path was by no means secure.
Dominique Arel also pointed to the 1990s as a time when Ukraine’s path toward democracy—and a democracy that privileged human rights and minorities within the country—was solidified. He argued that the dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s was strongly influenced by the then-nascent human rights discourse circulating, particularly in Europe. The parties that developed in the 1990s out of that dissident movement were committed to human rights, and they were committed to competitive politics. In the same time period, political institutions such as Parliament—created during the late socialist period in support of the Soviet Union’s largely symbolic elections—actually gained political power. Arel observed that there was no guarantee these institutions would develop democratically; indeed, neighboring Belarus had the same institutions as Ukraine, but those institutions have not supported a competitive democratic political system. The continued functioning of these institutions, as well as the necessity for reforms in some of them, will be key themes in later panels in the conference.
Another key conclusion from Panel 1 that will be relevant in future panels is that of regionalism. As Hrytsak described, Ukraine has a strong sense of regionalism, but no truly strong regions (though there is an argument to be made that Galicia is an exception to that statement). Nataliya Kibita focused on the regional distribution of power throughout the panel. Throughout the Soviet period, Ukraine did not have an effective centralized administrative mechanism, which led to power consolidation on the regional level. However, Kibita argued that regionalism actually helped Ukraine safeguard against authoritarianism in the 1990s; because regionalism in Ukraine was more deeply rooted than a central authority, no one party or person could effectively consolidate power after independence (the opposite of which happened in Russia). And, as Arel discussed, Galicia, having long been under the control of the Austo-Hungarian Empire, has a long tradition of competitive politics that stretched across Ukraine in the 1990s and continues to develop throughout Ukraine today.
Finally, Plokhii posed the question, how does democracy influence the public’s view of history? In other words, what are the historical narratives that matter to people who look at history through the lens of Ukraine’s democratic development? Arel responded that the extent to which the past is meaningful to people is constantly being deliberated: the nature of the regime impacts the nature of historical memory. There are always multiple narratives challenging one another, depending on who is in power, and the most important thing is to recognize the complexity of the historical figures and moments at hand. Hrytsak elaborated further, suggesting that each administration or regime tries to implement their own version of a historical narrative, but in Ukraine, no administration has completely succeeded; thus, we have been left with a plurality of historical narratives. Gaidai agreed and added that if we believe Ukraine is a democracy, we are more likely to find evidence of a democratic past; indeed, evidence of a democratic past was key to the destruction of Soviet historical narratives, especially in the 1990s. Kibita concluded that after 1991, when the state lost its monopoly on historical memory, history continued to be perceived as a branch of ideology. History is still seen as a political instrument in Ukraine.
The excellent contributions from today’s panelists set the stage for a better understanding of why Ukraine is and continues to be a democracy. Tomorrow’s panel will dig into the role of civil society and mass mobilizations; join us at noon (EST) again!