The TCUP Conference continued on Wednesday, February 3, 2021, with a keynote lecture by Dr. Francis Fukuyama entitled, “Lessons from the Ukrainian Transition to Democracy.” Dr. Fukuyama’s extensive experience with Ukrainian democracy includes his work with the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program at Stanford University, which brings mid-career practitioners working in policy-making, legal, entrepreneur, and civil society fields in Ukraine to Stanford for academic training and leadership skill development.
Dr. Fukuyama began his lecture by stating that Ukraine is the most important democratic transition in the world. It is at the frontline of the global struggle for democracy, and this position has become even more significant after the Russian annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas. But the transition to democracy has proven difficult—not only in Ukraine, but around the region—for post-Soviet countries that must escape their communist pasts.
Fukuyama organized his talk around three “baskets” of lessons from Ukraine. First, he focused on the importance of civil society; second, the importance of governance; and finally, reasons corruption persists.
Transition to democracy would be impossible without civil society, argued Fukuyama. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 destroyed the authoritarian political equilibrium that had existed previously, and the energy and idealism of young Ukrainians who went into the streets again in 2014 proves that people are not willing to accept backsliding. Civil society helps hold the government accountable. Fukuyama reiterated a point made in yesterday’s panel on civil society: people can’t go into the streets all the time to demand accountability, but he argued that having this option can tip the balance from time to time to safeguard the transition to democracy.
Turning to the issue of governance, Fukuyama noted the challenge—but necessity—of implementing a democratic system of governance (rather than simply having democratic elections). The failure of the Orange Revolution was a failing of governance—the Orange Coalition was too divided internally, so they had no focus on governing Ukraine. Its members were interested only in their own power, so they failed to deliver on their earlier promises. Of course, Ukraine is not unique in this experience—the post-Arab Spring government in Tunisia also inspired this sort of disillusionment. Fukuyama mentioned Georgia, which, he argued, is the only post-Soviet country to tackle issues of governance. However, Mikhail Saakashvili used authoritarian methods to implement reforms, such as firing more than half of the police force, and these methods led to his downfall. In these examples, we can see that democratization is complicated and fragile, and the gains made in these countries must be protected by good governance practices.
Here, Fukuyama turned to a clarifying definition. He argued that the difficulty of modern democracies is less about democracy and more about the modern state. States historically were formed patrimonially, as an extension of the family, in which personal and family interests were prioritized (Max Weber’s framework). Modern states, in contrast, are impersonal. They are organized around bureaucracies staffed by public servants who prioritize public interests. These public servants are citizens, equal members of the political community with those they serve, and they view their constituents as fellow-citizens, rather than through personal loyalties, opportunities for favor, or familial relationships. Thus, the state and its institutions should work to serve citizens’ interests.
Building such institutions is difficult in post-communist countries, because the Soviet bureaucracy was so deeply infiltrated by politics; in other words, there was no tradition of impersonal bureaucracy before 1991. This has been a challenge across the region in building modern, democratic states. Many civil society actors recognize the ways politics continue to infiltrate state institutions that should be impersonal bureaucracies, including in Ukraine; many try to avoid entering politics because they fear they will not be able to avoid pursuing personal interests over public ones. But Fukuyama advocated for them to enter the government, because these governments will never get better if those who do not believe in good governance do not enter politics.
Finally, Fukuyama discussed the persistence of corruption in Ukraine. Why do reforms appear to be failing? Fukuyama stated that he, like many others, had high hopes for President Volodymyr Zelensky when he was elected, and especially when he gained an enviable supermajority with his party’s win in Parliament. Why has his power leached away over time? People wanted dramatic changes, but there has been an endurance of oligarchic power thanks to their access to money and their use of that money to control legacy media. Fukuyama focused on the essential role media plays in upholding oligarchic power; owning a TV station leads to political power. There is a real challenge in defeating this kind of entrenched power, and the oligarchic system may require a popular uprising to bring it down for good.
Fukuyama concluded by discussing what outsiders can do, including mentioning the high hopes placed on the new Biden administration in the United States. Western support for civil society continues to be essential to prepare a new generation of leaders. If Ukraine can defeat corruption, it will be because a new generation is oriented toward liberal democracy—and public service rather than personal gain. Fukuyama is always optimistic when he meets these young people who want to live in a different kind of country, and he encourages them to move beyond Soviet legacies of distrust and to break out of the Kyiv bubble, reaching beyond major urban centers to support Ukraine’s democratic transition.
Listen to Dr. Fukuyama’s full lecture, including the question and answer session, on YouTube.