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Ukraine's Opportunity for Genuine Democracy

After 23 years of formal independence, Ukraine stands poised to take the final steps toward genuine independence by liberating itself from what has become the legacy of Soviet communism throughout its former empire—rule by criminal and thuggish regimes and oligarchs. Ukraine finally has the opportunity to join the civilized world where constitutions and rule of law, not party hacks and bullies, reign supreme.

The sudden, rapid, and comprehensive collapse of the criminal Yanukovych regime surprised many—especially after the butchery that just preceded it—but it was preprogrammed by the nature of the regime. Extreme centralization of authority in the hands of an incompetent sultan whose entire agenda consisted of self-enrichment guaranteed bureaucratic fragmentation, regime illegitimacy, and popular anger. Lacking an ideological raison d’être and resting only on the willingness of security forces to sustain it, the brittle regime crumbled once President Yanukovych ordered mass killings, democratic revolutionaries in Kyiv refused to be cowed, provincial uprisings swept the country, and Regionnaires realized their careers—and lives—were on the line. As soon as the Regionnaire thugs began fleeing en masse, the security forces became isolated, Yanukovych’s cronies jumped ship, and he had to run. Graft, theft, and coercion proved to be insufficient to keep the mafia regime intact.

The Party of Regions has become eviscerated; it and the Communist Party are still represented in Parliament, but both must rethink the retrograde Soviet values that inspired them in order to survive. Propelling that rethinking is the fact that democratic Ukraine intends to try the top 25 regime representatives for crimes against humanity. If and when Yanukovych, who heads the list, is captured and put on trial, the full extent of the regime’s criminality will come to light and discourage Regionnaire holdouts from attempting a comeback. The democratic authorities are also planning a “lustration” similar to investigations of criminal wrongdoing by regime collaborators in Central Europe and South Africa.

A key part of the repudiation of the Soviet past is the continued toppling of Ukraine’s approximately 1,300 remaining Lenin statues and the renaming of streets, squares, and the like. Twenty-five Lenins met their end in just two days last week. In a foretaste of things to come, the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk renamed Lenin Square “Heroes of the Maidan Square,” in honor of the demonstrators shot and killed by Yanukovych’s hirelings on Kyiv’s Independence Square. The Soviet star adorning the Parliament has also been removed.

These and many other measures stand a good chance of moving Ukraine in the direction of post-communist Poland, the Baltic states, and their Central European neighbors, which understood, when the USSR collapsed, that a radical break with the Soviet past was the precondition of a lasting shift toward sustainable democracy, rule of law, and a market economy. In effect, Ukraine is now at the same point they were in 1989–91.

Except that Ukraine is also far worse off. In addition to 70 years under communist totalitarianism and Russian imperialism, Ukraine suffered incalculable damage due to four years of untrammeled Regionnaire exploitation. The treasury is empty. State institutions have been eviscerated. The economy is on the verge of collapse. Rule of law has disappeared. And, unlike in 1991, when Russia was weak and in retreat, Putin’s Russia is much stronger and more aggressive.

Will the democratic revolution succeed?

Cautious optimism is the order of the day. Repudiation of the Soviet past and the institutional devastation caused by the “Yanukovych Ruin” give the democrats the opportunity to start from a clean slate. The Regionnaires and Communists are on the run and, quite possibly, on the verge of extinction. Three months of intense struggle and close to 100 dead have created an unprecedented esprit de corps among democrats. For the first time, they agree on strategic goals: Europe, democracy, rule of law, and the market; most of the population supports the goals of the revolution; and the United States and Europe support Ukraine. Once the EU Association Agreement is signed, it will provide Kyiv with a road map of change. The democrats also know that, if they fail, Ukraine will fail, and that the Maidan activists who fought the regime and sacrificed their lives will fight them if they dither and squabble.

Will Russia lead a charge to reinstall the ancien régime or break off bits of Ukraine? The former scenario is almost impossible, as the regime has melted away and there is no one left to reinstall. The latter is theoretically possible—at least in the Crimea—although it would mean that President Putin has lost all his geopolitical marbles. If Putin does throw all caution to the wind and acts only on irrational impulse, he will only consolidate democratic rule in Ukraine (nothing rallies people around the flag as much as foreign intervention: even Yanukovych’s financial backer, the multibillionaire Rinat Akhmetov, spoke out against partition on February 24th) and provoke Russian democrats and Crimean Tatars to take to the streets (or, possibly, to arms—in which case, you can kiss the peninsula’s vaunted beaches good-bye). Such action would also be warning Belarus and Kazakhstan that they might be next. When the dust settles, democratic Ukraine will still be standing, Putin’s Russia could be destabilized, and his Customs Union and Eurasian Union would essentially be kaput. An intervention or economic embargo would bring Putin’s Russia nothing at best and enormous risks at worst.

The next few months will be heady, as the Parliament and government adopt a variety of important measures to pull back the country from bankruptcy, reintroduce democracy, and move Ukraine irreversibly toward Europe. There will be setbacks. Euphoria will alternate with despair. There may be pushback from desperate Regionnaires. In time, policy details will come into play and divisions will appear in the ranks of the democrats. Ideals will be sullied. Compromises will be reached. Charges of spinelessness will be leveled. Fortunately, these charges will probably be leveled after strategic shifts have taken place and Ukraine has seceded from its Soviet past. And then, with just a little luck, Ukraine could become a normal polity where democratic politics, both clean and dirty, becomes the norm.

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