Democracy Under Siege: Why Should We care About The Crisis In The Ukrainian Democracy?

Posted on January 27, 2014 in GlobeScope

By Astha Agarwal:

I will tell you a story. There once was a country where a leader took an unpleasant decision that the people couldn’t digest. So, they conveyed their displeasure through peaceful mob gatherings, petitions and sloganeering. The leader, initially reluctant, listened and contemplated. S/he wasn’t a selfless saint but intelligent enough to foresee that brute force wasn’t as effective a weapon to quell the retaliation. S/he wanted to convert that mistake into a virtuous opportunity and hence, agreed to pay heed to the crowd’s recitations. Negotiations occurred and a compromise was arrived at. Nobody got killed. Armies were never called to fight ‘internal enemies’. Everybody lived happily ever after (till the next disappointment).

Kiev protests

You must be wondering when did this happen? What paradise is this? This, my friend, is a democracy’s fairytale! Fairytales seldom (read: never) come true. With another democracy going berserk, (after Bangladesh, I want to count India as well) I am surer. Ukraine did not have a very democracy friendly history. Being one of the 15 ‘republics’ of the former USSR or Soviet Union, it had a long engagement with totalitarian regime. After it broke away from USSR in 1991, like other disaggregated republics, it was mired in widespread corruption and confusion till the ‘orange revolution’ in 2004 which brought hope to the people. It was moving closer to European Union, right when the President Victor Yanukovych chose to forget the lesson of ‘orange revolution’ (his unruly demeanour, rigging of elections and corruption precipitated in the revolution and hence his ouster). In late November, the President cancelled the Association Agreement (A free-trade deal) with European Union, thereby halting the engagement process. He simultaneously signed a $15 billion bailout deal with Russia which also includes a promise to be sold gas at a much cheaper price. He miscalculated that the deal would dissuade the protests. If  only had he realised that moving closer to Europe and away from Russia were two sides of the same coin. (Perhaps he did!) Little could he (chosen to) have known.

Here we are today with Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, running into the second month of protests at European Square renamed as ‘Independence square’. Mishandling of protests appears to be in vogue. Yanukovych cracked down on his own people letting the can of worms to open. Anti-protests legislation that bans all forms of protests, and allowing authorities to jail all those who blockade public buildings for upto 5 years and those who wear masks and helmets, added fuel to the fire. What started as the protest against the fear of the loss of a European future has translated into vociferous demands for immediate resignation of Yanukovych and his cabinet, which analysts perceive most unlikely to happen. This is because while Yanuklovych’s administration stands united and strong, on the other hand, even though the opposition political leaders have expressed support to the movement, they have not been effective in claiming its leadership, so much so that the movement is diffused and leaderless. More worrisome is the presence of far-right anti-Semitic ultranationalist forces. The scene is metamorphosing into an ugly specter with stun grenades and flares thrown at protesters, and rocks and petrol bombs pelted by the protestors. With violence taking on the streets of Kiev, the government has also got an excuse to exercise danda-niti refusing any kind of compromise with the protestors. Some have even speculated a foreign engineered coup d’état! However, after the Sunday clashes, Yanukovych has offered power sharing with opposition figures Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister and Vitaly Klitschko as deputy prime minister, a proposal that has been branded as ‘poisoned’ and hence rejected. Many administrative buildings and ministries in the western Ukraine have been besieged and demonstrations are now engulfing the entire country, including the east — the stronghold of Yanukovych.

So far so bad. How does a democracy function? Polling booths are just a manifestation of a process by which representatives are chosen. Democracy survives with active participation of the citizens. They should be able to articulate their demands and disagreements, ask questions, and hold their leaders accountable. This negotiation is crucial for the health of any democracy. Unfortunately, in the era when the Arab Spring(s) is proudly celebrated for its democratic potential (future still very uncertain), the violent fall-out of democratic regimes in this manner, discouragingly and discomfortingly, betrays the promise. By now, it is obvious that the mere fact of coming to power of a government through ballot doesn’t entail prevalence of freedom. Democracy becomes a process of continuous negotiation. What it also brings to notice is an ongoing tussle between national and human security. As the case of Ukraine demonstrates, it is clearly the ‘regime’s security’ camouflaged as national security that provides justification for government’s hostility against its own people. Every time I come across the news of government’s mishandling of protests in democracies, I experience a moment of déjà vu (of course grief a well!). All that I ask, with a sigh, is ‘Have I seen this before?’

Why should I care?

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”

~ Martin Niemöller