The path of the modern Ukrainian state towards democracy has been relatively short, but simultaneously full of struggle. The people of Ukraine had to take to the streets at least three times over the last 30 years to preserve democracy in the country: in 1990, 2004, and 2014. The last time when Ukrainian society stood up to the rise of authoritarian rule, Russia started its aggression against Ukraine by occupying the Crimean Peninsula and deploying its mercenaries in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The large-scale political and social protests of 2004, also known as the Orange Revolution, proved that Ukrainians would not accept electoral fraud and restriction of freedom of speech. Victory of the pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko was a clear signal for Vladimir Putin and Kremlin elites that Ukraine opted for its own independent pathway.
The events on the Maidan in 2013-2014 led to a substantial decrease in the Russian influence in Ukraine, as the country signed an association agreement with the European Union and implemented some of the NATO standards. It is worth noting that against all odds Ukraine had free presidential and parliamentary elections both in 2014 and 2019. Among the fears that the 2018 martial law could postpone next year’s elections and thus prolong Petro Poroshenko’s tenure, the transition of power to the newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky was completed without any upheavals, which ensured the continuity of democratic processes in the country.
The 2022 Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine was intended to ultimately solve ‘the Ukrainian problem’ with democratically elected authorities in Kyiv being physically eliminated and thousands of civil society activists being detained or forced from the country. While the Kremlin failed its initial assault on the capital, it turned to the tactics of attrition in Ukraine by deploying new troops and equipment in the occupied East as well as targeting critical infrastructure across the country and launching indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population. Moscow is also waging a war against the Ukrainian economy as the country’s GDP decreased by more than 30% in 2022 which has made Ukraine totally dependent on external funding. In this way, Kremlin hopes to stir up popular discontent in the country and thereby coerce president Zelensky into accepting Russian ‘peace’ terms.
It is extremely important to keep in mind that Ukraine’s victory over Russia does not exclusively boil down to a military dimension only, but increasingly it also means the preservation of democratic processes such as elections and continuation of the reforms as this will play a key role in the continuation of the Western support to Ukraine and increase the chance of latter to join the European Union and NATO. If Ukraine experiences a gradual or yet worse dramatic deterioration of democratic rule, opponents of supporting Ukraine within the Euro-Atlantic community as well as Russia itself will use this argument to leave Kyiv without military and financial aid. Needless to further dwell on the consequences for Kyiv of such a policy change in the West.
Role of CEE in Supporting Ukrainian Democracy
The CEE region is comprised of a wide group of states with different interests. The only country in the region, which has been actively engaged in preserving an independent and democratic Ukraine regardless of the political affiliation of its leaders throughout the past three decades, is Poland.
During the 2004 Orange Revolution, all three Polish Presidents – Lech Wałęsa, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and Lech Kaczyński (in 2005 the mayor of Warsaw) – supported the democratic aspirations of Ukrainians. Moreover, due to President Kwaśniewski’s close relationship with his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma, Polish leader played a mediating role between the authorities and the opposition in Ukraine, which later led to reaching a compromise between the parties.i
Poland earned the name of ‘Ukraine’s advocate’ not without a reason as Warsaw was working hard both with Brussels and Kyiv to ensure that the EU-Ukraine association agreement could be concluded. In 2012 Aleksander Kwaśniewski was once again in Ukraine in the role of mediator – however this time within the EU mission – to break the political stalemate and free Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenkoii.
After Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the association agreement with the EU, which triggered protests across the country in November 2013 known as Euromaidan, the foreign minister of Poland Radosław Sikorski together with his German and French counterparts was negotiating a deal between the pro-Russian government in Kyiv and opposition leaders. Apart from that, Polish opposition figures expressed their support for the ideas of Maidan by visiting Kyiv amidst the revolutioniii.
In the period after 2014, Poland condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea, called for the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Eastern Ukraine as well as supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations on multiple occasions and on various international platforms.
The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has only reinforced contacts between Warsaw and Kyiv and a mutual understanding of shared strategic interests. The former has become a shelter for millions of Ukrainian refugees, an irreplaceable logistical hub, and the largest supplier of weapons among the CEE states. More importantly, there is a consensus among the majority of Polish politicians that it is impossible to have a safe Poland without an independent and democratic Ukraine.
Russian aggression has also stimulated other countries from the region to advocate more actively on behalf of Ukraine as their security depends on Ukraine’s ability to repel the invasion. In this context, it is important to emphasise the strong political and military support of the governments of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Czechia.
Further actions of CEE governments
Ukrainian democracy will be constantly endangered without solid security guarantees from the West as the Russian ruling elites perceive the existence of a free and democratic Ukraine as a danger to their own regime. Moscow saw both the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan solely as Western attempts to undermine the Russian influence in the region. The events of both 2004 and 2014 were followed by economic and energy blackmail of Ukraine, which eventually led to military aggression.
To ensure that Ukraine grows into a fully-fledged democracy with strong institutions it needs to get anchored in the Euro-Atlantic community. It is crucial that CEE politicians persuade Western capitals that indecisiveness on Ukraine’s membership will not serve as ‘a gesture of goodwill’ to Russia in the name of preventing a global conflict, but rather as an incentive to continue its aggression. The ill-fated decision of the 2008 Bucharest Summit proved to be an invitation for Moscow to attack Ukraine in 2014.
The CEE governments should leave behind bilateral disputes – such as minority issues – with Ukraine at least for the time being and prioritise developing a unanimous position among themselves as well as work out a viable plan which would include transitional security guarantees for Ukraine on its path to full membership in NATO.
Despite the ongoing invasion of Russia, which hugely impacts the normal functioning of the state, Ukraine remains a democratic country with existing opposition and free media. Furthermore, the government in Kyiv is working on implementing the recommendations of the European Commission – primarily concerning reforms in the rule of law and anti-corruption domains – before one of the European Council summits at the end of 2023.
Leaders of the CEE countries should work on convincing other EU member states of the need to start accession talks with Ukraine this year as it has implemented almost all recommendations.ivThis powerful morale-booster will simultaneously play at least two functions: show Russia that the EU’s doors are opened for Ukraine and encourage the Ukrainian government and society to carry on with the implementation of reforms. Once the accession process starts, the support of the CEE states will be crucial in the process of adopting the acquis communautaire.
Democratic backsliding in the war-torn country with a number of economic and demographic issues is one of the scenarios, which should be taken into account by the West, should Ukraine fail to obtain a clear perspective of membership in the EU and NATO.
Finally, the CEE states have the potential to play a key role in Ukraine’s accession process both to the EU and NATO as they have the most recent experience from their own accession process. Moreover, with Ukraine being a member of the EU and NATO, the voice of the CEE region will only become stronger in European affairs.
Author: Ihor Havrylyuk, Advocacy Specialist, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Project supported by the National Endowment for Democracy
i A.Szeptycki, Contemporary Relations between Poland and Ukraine, Peter Lang, 2019, Berlin, p.82-83.
ii A. Szeptycki, Contemporary Relations between Poland and Ukraine, p.84-86.
iii A. Szeptycki, Contemporary Relations between Poland and Ukraine, p. 87.