One of the subjects discussed at our roundtable in Toronto last week was the prospects for the development of liberal democracy in Ukraine. Peter Solomon, who wrote a book about the criminal justice system in the Soviet Union, expressed some very cautious optimism that judicial reform in Ukraine could make positive progress. Ivan Katchanovski, by contrast, was far more sceptical and suggested that Ukraine had become less not more democratic since the Maidan revolution.
Those who support the idea that Ukraine is moving towards becoming a Western-style democracy have been rejoicing this week over the news that the Netherlands has ratified Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement. ‘Ukraine won. Putin lost’, crowed RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore, adding that ‘Ukraine is finally getting what it has been fighting for.’
By contrast, anti-Maidan commentators have picked up today on the news that the city of Kiev has renamed one of the city’s major thoroughfares from General Vatutin Prospect to Roman Shukhevich Prospect. And for sure, replacing the man who led the forces which liberated Kiev from the Nazis with somebody who collaborated with them seems an odd way of marking the transition towards liberal democracy (though I am sure that Vatutin himself was no liberal democrat).
Missed in all the fuss about these stories, however, were a couple more which are quite revealing about the state of democracy in Ukraine.
First, the Kyiv Post reported today that, ‘The municipal council of Kyiv has approved the granting of combatant status for volunteer battalion fighters’ after ‘The war veterans burst into the assembly hall demanding the legal status on June 1.’ According to the report:
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko proposed changes before consideration of final passage during the next council meeting, but protesters forced the council to take a final vote. Several persons in camouflage entered the hall, initiating a scuffle with the assembly’s security, and succeeding in persuading the city council to vote on the issue.
Indeed, I am sure that they ‘succeeded in persuading the city council’ very easily. I have no opinion on whether members of the volunteer battalions should have official veteran status, but it’s an odd sort of democratic procedure when it’s undertaken in the presence of camouflaged soldiers who have burst into the council chamber. Also rather odd is the Kyiv Post’s insouciance about this act of blatant intimidation. One would surely expect supporters of Western liberal and democrat norms not to be too keen on this sort of thing.
It isn’t unique, however. Earlier this week, the founder of the nationalist Azov Battalion, Andrei Biletsky, led a group of supporters in an action to occupy the Lvov regional council building. Their aim was to force the council to send a request to President Poroshenko to amnesty members of volunteer battalions accused of crimes in the war in Donbass. Afterwards Biletsky declared ‘that, on the basis of the example of the storm of the Lvov regional council, activists would storm councils in other regions to demand an amnesty for those who had fought in the Anti-Terrorist Operation’. ‘We want to create pressure, to show that every region supports these things’, said Biletsky, ‘We will come to other regional councils, and will continue to do this.’
Again, it has to be said that this is an odd sort of democracy.
In our panel, I avoided taking any firm position on the subject of Ukraine’s future development. On the whole, I’m trying to avoid making predictions, as I have got too many wrong in the past. But these stories make me lean a bit more to the sceptics’ point of view. How things turn out in the future, I cannot tell, but as far as the present is concerned they don’t look too healthy.