Update on Elections and What’s Next for Ukraine

By Jon Barrow

As expected, we’ve seen an upturn in jonviolence in the east. We can expect even more today and tomorrow. The more people vote, the greater the credibility of the elections.

Good news that Akhmetov seems to have come aboard, at last; though his support seems Soviet-style – automatic or paid – rather than genuine. The old faces can be both dangerous enemies and dangerous friends – able to corrupt from the inside. One hope is that a rule-of-law and free competition environment (which western structures will insist on) might suit the oligarchs, now that they have their wealth; but they will be wary of ending up in Firtash’s position – under extradition to the US.

For the third time, Russia claims to be ‘withdrawing forces’ from the border – but ‘in a few days’ (after the elections). Russia has also stated that it ‘provisionally supports’ the elections (thus does not support any aspects it does not like). Ukraine will have to live with the fact that as long as it has weak spots, Russia will exploit them.

The way I see it, the movement is now reaching a third stage. First, the Maidan movement prevented Russia II; the repercussions of that burst out over the rest of the country – where conflict continues, but I think there is an end in sight; now I think there will be a change of focus, to reform within Ukrainian society and state.

This reform is likely to be the toughest challenge. There are no clear ‘enemies’ and only intellect and vision can win – not force; for in fact the problems lie deep in the roots of Ukraine itself.

I have for a long time wanted to write about this, but never thought it was the right time. I’ll now take the plunge.

What follows is meant as comment on the civic (including political and business) life of Ukraine; not as comment on individual Ukrainians or on personal relationships – a wholly different matter. It may not be taken well by you, the reader, but I feel it’s time to write it. Perhaps it will give insights, to both people in and outside Ukraine.

I’ve spent twenty years running small businesses in many countries, in Asia and Europe. Throughout that time I’ve been interested in social and political events of all the places I’ve lived, and read widely on these subjects. But of course, any analysis depends on the quality of the mind which processes information – as well as the bias of the analyst. I realise you may think I’m wide of the mark. Please read on, though.

When I came to Ukraine, eight years ago, I was immediately struck by a lingering atmosphere of repression and control – from the guards everywhere, to the bureaucracy, to the lack of trust. A few people I worked around suggested, seriously, I might be a US agent. Quite a few Ukrainians seemed to think that their country was basically like a pluralistic western democracy, just cursed with bad leadership. But my view was (and is) that it was not much more than a hollow shell of a liberty-based democracy – both the structures and values that make up successful democratic states were missing – at many levels of society.

Now Ukraine has a chance to redefine itself. Maidan has given the country a self-image and a national story that will be used to frame future discussion and decisions. This opportunity has only come about because large numbers of Ukrainians were forced into making choices, and sacrifices. Despite the deaths and instability, Maidan – quite different in content to independence and the Orange events – was the kind of experience that Ukrainians needed; a chance to take a look at themselves, understand the civilisational choices on offer and make those choices.

Ukraine has made a civilisational choice, away from their authoritarian past and towards a different vision of the future – people overwhelmingly say they want a successful democratic system. But the success of pluralistic democracies, as mentioned above, depends largely on values (especially when new states are being formed – in Western countries, with pluralistic systems of power already in place – the institutions themselves can keep going for a while even if the values propping them up start collapsing). The success of the new Ukraine is going to depend, more than anything else, on its own population’s ability and stamina in pushing for change. Self-understanding, and knowledge of both their own country and the wider world, is crucial here – without knowledge, there can be little vision.

While the people of Ukraine are increasingly liberty-minded in outlook (especially compared to people in Russia and to their own older generations), and I am very hopeful for positive change, there are certain points that I would like to draw attention to – purely with the intention of prompting thought:

1. In civic life, people remain largely passive in comparison with most other countries. One thing that really struck me in Ukraine – so odd to my eyes – was the way that so many people still seem to think that the waves of shocks sweeping the country are nothing to do with them. I was especially struck by this on recent trips to the east (and I have noticed western journalists commenting on this) – where the vast majority seem oblivious to what is happening around them. I have many times heard ‘I’m a doctor so politics does not interest me’; ‘I’m not interested – this is for the political leaders’; ‘We must have stability (at any price) – I want this to go away’. Whether people are scared (for obvious historical reasons) or uninterested, neither characteristic will help to build a better future.

I had an upbringing which was at times very modest – including sleeping rough and years of working for minimum pay; but the culture around me was largely ‘God helps those who help themselves’ – applied in both the private and public spheres. Modern Ukrainians are now adept at organising their private lives, but still feel that it is the business of big organisations (governments, international bodies) to deal with civic (including political) problems – hence wholly unrealistic demands that bodies like the EU and UN should sort out the problems of the Ukrainian state. I even notice this instinct among civic-minded people. This not only misunderstands the capability of the EU and UN (a few people I work with seemed surprised to learn about the Russian and Chinese veto, and the fact that the UN has a principle on non-intervention; and that the EU has no military mandate) but also does not recognise the fact that Ukraine is both (mainly) the responsibility of Ukrainians and that, if goals are achieved, the victory will be Ukraine’s. Successful democracies have independent citizens, who are not state or organisation-dependent.

2. There are still old instincts of vertical power, in most organisations; secrecy with information; intolerance of different opinions; worldviews where all is black or white; use of (and susceptibility to) propaganda. These habits cannot support pluralistic democracies, which put the individual first and are premised on critical thinking. Ukraine has its share of internal division; this needs to be recognized, discussed and dealt with – not ignored. While I have fairly minimal sympathy with eastern separatists who claim their ‘voice is not being heard’ – the east has historically had disproportionate power (most of the Yanu govt was formed from his Donbass allies) and these people don’t actually have much to say – I hope that the new President will immediately turn his attention not only to open governance but also maximizing regional autonomy; while in no way undermining the executive power of the central government. If these types of changes do not happen, people (including me – I live here and am part of this country!) need to exert pressure to make it happen – with their brains, not with guns.

3. Double-standards can no longer be tolerated. The ‘leaders’ are not going to reform, if the citizenry continue to take part in and thereby support corrupt practices. There cannot be one standard for ‘our side’ and a different standard for others. I fully agree that the position of the Russian state has been despicable; and the whole ‘fascist’ argument is farcical. The challenge for Ukrainians is not to start playing the same ‘whatabout …’ game – so far, generally not; but there is a risk of sliding into pointless accusations. Rather than constantly comparing who is better, who worse; who has more responsibility for XYZ and who less; Ukrainians need to keep focusing on the goal (reform inside Ukraine) and how to achieve it (clear goals, honestly stated; effective planning and working with others who share the same visions). In the real world, we can’t expect others to live up to our highest hopes – and we can’t control that. We need to start by changing ourselves.

Source: Brit on the Barricades 


7 thoughts on “Update on Elections and What’s Next for Ukraine

  1. Well said. ALL Ukrainians must participate, rich and poor, in the creation of civic institutions to make a FREE AND JUST UKRAINE.

  2. John,
    Excellent; I completely agree. My own experience on the ground in Eastern Ukraine (I own property outside Donetsk) and in Russia (family in several regions) leads me to precisely the same conclusions with regard to the curious disconnect between the circumstances of people there, and their feelings about their own actions. They don’t seem to see the two as being connected, nor see that they have power, and even obligation, to take responsibility for their own circumstances and create change. Change seems to be something to be feared and to react to, not something to be planned, instigated and achieved.

    I believe it is this “paternalistic society” phenomenon much mentioned with connection to the Soviet Union. But the flip side of placing yourself in someone else’ care and surrendering your oversight of them is that they will rob you blind, as has been happening in Ukraine from the very beginnings of the soviet system. It’s the price you pay to be freed from having to “be involved.” For example, I served on a municipal Planning board here in the US for 7 years, as a volunteer. Whenever I drive in Russia and Ukraine, its quite obvious to me that there are no citizen Planning Boards overseeing development to ensure that it serves the needs and vision of the community. It happens in whatever way lines pockets most effectively, even when it then costs the Russian and Ukrainian people millions of dollars in lost productivity due to insane traffic jams, accidents, etc. making governments serve the needs of the people, instead of people being exploited and robbed to support the appetites if government officials, required real effort every day and eternal vigilence. Democracy isn’t something that one can do only on voting day, but has to inform the way you live every day.

    Ukrainians are going to have to learn to get involved in their governments at every level, AND refuse to attempt bribery to get ahead, to realize the metamorphosis they seek. Luckily, its been done before, with stellar success. Look at Poland ten years ago and today to see the power of this change for every day citizens.

    John, I admire your devotion to Ukraine, and appreciate your efforts for my beloved second home! Slava Ukrainye!

  3. An excellent written piece. As a Canadian expat living in Ukraine seven years now, I couldn’t agree more. It will take time to crawl out from under the paternalistic attitude after a thousand years but it is and will continue to happen. Too many people the world over think democracy is making an X every few years and then someone owes you Nirvana. Now if the country can either get Putin off its back or marginalize him to the point of non-effectiveness while it continues on the road to reform we are set. Slava Ukrainye!

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