Ukrainian democracy vs. the Russian war: how to increase resilience

When facing aggression, it is paramount to maintain one's moral integrity, even amidst the fiercest war. Putin and his inner circle have consistently viewed the democratisation of Ukraine as a fundamental threat to their grip on power in Russia. Employing various tactics over the years, they have sought to hinder Ukraine's alignment with the European Union and NATO, exerting direct influence on its internal politics. However, as these efforts proved ineffective, the Kremlin escalated its actions, occupying Crimea, invading the Donbas region and launching a devastating full-scale invasion in 2022.
Bohdan Ferens
Ph.D., founder SD Platform and Progresylni
The central streets of Kyiv are crowded. As always, everyone is in a hurry somewhere about their business. You can hear English spoken in the cafes. At first glance, everything seems to be as before until 24 February 2022. But this is just an illusion. A moment later, the same streets are filled with the roar of sirens, signalling another Russian attack with drones and deadly missiles.
They say it is impossible to get used to war, especially to its consequences. Death, devastation and crippled destinies of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are a reality that we have to live with. Putin hoped to break Ukraine, but he failed to do so. Do you know why? The Russian leadership has not fully realised that for Ukrainians, living in freedom and democracy is not a set of hackneyed slogans, but a guideline in life that has been passed down for many years from generation to generation. And for the right to determine its destiny independently, striving for democratic changes, Ukraine has to pay the highest price. Another component is international support, including the military dimension, without which it would be even more difficult to resist the Russian army than it is now.
What worries Ukrainians?

War significantly influences domestic politics, public demands and priorities. If, in 2022, political life practically came to a standstill, a year later everything gradually began to return to normal. Everything except elections. After all, with the introduction of martial law, holding elections in Ukraine seems impossible. But fair elections, as we know, are a key component of further democratisation and ensuring the replacement of political elites.

Differing opinions persist within society regarding the wisdom of conducting elections amidst the backdrop of war. However, the prevailing sentiment reflects a growing sense of fatigue and frustration stemming from the challenging circumstances at the frontlines, economic hardships, corruption scandals and recent changes in military leadership, notably the dismissal of the renowned General Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
These concerns are further compounded by apprehensions surrounding the obstacles encountered in securing timely military assistance, particularly from the US. The confluence of these factors underscores the complex and multifaceted challenges facing Ukraine as it navigates through the Russian war and strives to maintain stability and resilience in the face of adversity.
The demand for justice is palpable, growing more pronounced with the ongoing war. This call for justice permeates not only heated debates on social networks and in the media, but also resonates in everyday conversations. Ukrainians are deeply concerned about the implications of the war on various aspects of their lives. Questions abound regarding the rules governing conscription and preserving rights, including labour rights and the right to education, under martial law. There are also concerns about the resilience of the economy and financial system in the face of President Vladimir Putin's apparent strategy of attrition.

Furthermore, there is a pressing need to address and bridge the gaps and tensions that have emerged between different segments of society: between the rich and the poor, those actively engaged in the conflict and those on the home front, those who have migrated abroad, and those who remain in Ukraine. Preserving unity amidst these divisions is paramount for the nation's resilience and collective strength in the face of adversity.
Additionally, trust plays a significant role in Ukrainian society. According to a survey conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation in collaboration with the sociological service of the Razumkov Centre at the close of 2023, trust is predominantly placed in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, with a staggering 94 per cent of respondents expressing confidence in them. Furthermore, the Security Service of Ukraine also surpassed the 50 per cent mark, garnering trust from 71 per cent of respondents. Other institutions earning notable levels of trust include the President of Ukraine (68 per cent), the church (63 per cent), public organisations (63 per cent), the National Police of Ukraine (58 per cent) and the local head of government (53 per cent).

The survey also reveals a significant lack of trust in various key institutions. Political parties, for instance, face substantial scepticism, with a staggering 76 per cent of respondents expressing distrust. Similarly, the state apparatus, including officials, is met with distrust by 73 per cent of respondents, while 72 per cent lack confidence in the courts and the judicial system as a whole. The parliament fares no better, with 66 per cent expressing distrust, along with 63 per cent for the government of Ukraine, and 62 per cent for the prosecutor's office and anti-corruption authorities. Additionally, trade unions struggle to inspire confidence, with 46.5 per cent of respondents expressing distrust compared to only 25 per cent who trust them.
Clearly, rebuilding trust in political parties, courts, and government institutions, including the parliament and government, will require substantial time and effort. The ongoing war exacerbates these challenges, posing additional obstacles to the still-young Ukrainian democracy.
Democracy comes at a cost

Established democracies are characterised by a long history of functional party systems, entrenched political cultures, and enduring traditions that underpin the stability of state institutions. Ukraine, however, has only recently gained its independence and has spent the past decade defending it.

The lack of institutional experience has hindered the development of a robust and sustainable political system. For the fledgling post-Soviet elite, prioritising the establishment of strong state institutions was not a primary concern. This is understandable given that effective law enforcement and judicial oversight could potentially impede the embezzlement of state assets. Gradually, the grip of the old party nomenklatura weakened, allowing financial and industrial groups controlled by oligarchs to enter the political arena.
Although the opportunities for oligarchic influence diminished during the war, the end of hostilities may see attempts to reclaim lost power. Overcoming the oligarchs domestically will prove challenging. However, international pressure, both political and economic, can serve as a potent tool in curtailing their influence and fostering genuine democratic reform.

The development of a robust middle class has the potential to foster the emergence of new political entities with clear values and ideological principles. Investing in political education and engaging with youth can significantly influence the evolution of political demands and attitudes. When countries embark on ambitious reform agendas, they often look to established democracies for inspiration. However, simply replicating foreign models may not yield the desired outcomes. Democracy is a costly endeavour, particularly during wartime, necessitating substantial financial resources to enact necessary reforms.
This reality raises important questions for both international partners and Ukrainian authorities. Firstly, are international partners prepared to increase funding to support Ukraine's democratisation efforts and provide substantial resources for military needs and financial stability? Secondly, are Ukrainian authorities committed to further transformative measures to foster political pluralism, safeguard media freedom, combat corruption, decentralise governance and engage in meaningful dialogue with civil society – all amidst the backdrop of war?
Addressing these questions candidly is essential for a pragmatic assessment of priorities and for ensuring the resilience of democracy during conflict, while also laying the groundwork for effective post-war reconstruction. By honestly confronting these challenges, stakeholders can chart a path towards sustainable democratic progress in Ukraine.
This material was published by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), which is the largest think tank of European social democrats and is funded by the European Parliament. The source is available at the link.
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