Ukraine and the Culture of Democracy

Ukraine”s Quest for Mature Nation Statehood
Roundtable V: Ukraine”s Transition to a Stable Democracy

Ukraine and the Culture of Democracy

James Sherr

Featured remarks by James Sherr, Fellow, Conflict Studies Research Centre, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom (1), delivered during Ukraine’s Quest for Mature Nation Statehood Roundtable V: ” Ukraine”s Transition to a Stable Democracy”, Washington DC, September 13, 2004.

Is Ukraine a democracy? This simple question is not so simple to answer, and it is impossible to answer with a “yes” or “no”. The short answer is that Ukraine is a new-‘a flawed’-democracy: limited in scope and legitimacy, oligarchic, unhealthy and now under strain.

But it is a democracy with long-term promise, and the promise stems from the fact that Ukrainians as a people are quite democratically minded, certainly by comparison to their eastern and northern neighbours. Today, ordinary Ukrainians do not believe that they are living in a democracy, and that is a good thing. It is one of several indications that citizens put a value on democracy, that they have a set of standards about it, and they know that the current state of affairs does not measure up to them. There is also promise in the attitudes of a large number of Ukrainians who are not ordinary. Not only in the Verkhovna Rada, but in any number of state structures – not just the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the Cabinet of Ministers, Presidential Administration and Armed Forces – one also meets respectable numbers of individuals who are democratically minded, and whilst this includes people who are inclined to support the opposition, it also includes people who are not. This crossing of political lines is of critical importance, because it means that there is an evolutionary path forward for Ukraine. It means that whilst the growth of civic instincts is sharpening the divide between state and society, it is also creating points of friction within the state and a dynamic of evolution inside it. Will an undemocratic president reverse this dynamic or will he simply retard it? Perhaps we will have a chance to see.

If we can be optimistic about the future, we also need to be realistic about the present, and the present is defined by a well entrenched and increasingly aggressive status quo. Can the character of this status quo be explained purely by the interests of people in power? Or is its endurance and “maturation” not equally a result of a misunderstanding of how a healthy democratic political order differs from Ukraine”s – and why it is needed in the interests of the country?

Today there are a number of misunderstandings, and paradoxically, the democratic West has contributed to them. This is because, with some distinguished exceptions, Western governments and international organisations have tended to emphasise the mechanics of democracy rather than the culture of democracy.

Free elections and a free press are mechanics of democracy: very important mechanics, but they are neither the core of democracy nor the soul of it. “Democracy” describes a relationship between the state and society, and the key to this relationship is the character of institutions. Even if elections are “free and fair”, there will be no real democracy if state and public institutions continue to behave in an arrogant, autocratic, arbitrary and self-serving manner. If they do, the vast majority of people will continue to feel that their country is not theirs.

The fundamental problem in Ukraine is the gap between state and society. In more commonplace terms, it is the powerlessness of ordinary people. This powerlessness is something that is experienced on a daily basis – or, at least, on any day when people have to deal with an institution, a “structure of power”, even if it is local or small. This, too, was the core problem of the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet collapse, some things have improved, some things have worsened, and much has remained the same. In Ukraine today, there has been some, but far too little devolution of political power. There has also been little devolution of economic power. To a distressing degree, the networks of privilege that existed before are the networks of privilege that exist now. Some of the exceptions are not very flattering to the post-Soviet order: criminal networks, who once operated apprehensively and in the shadows but who, despite being termed “shadow structures”, now operate with impudence and near impunity. And on the other end of the spectrum, there is the decline in privilege of the very people who under the old system deserved it: the scientifically, technically and intellectually skilled – skilled, that is, in every art except finance. To be sure, there has also been real progress. In recent years, there has been solid economic growth (albeit less than official statistics suggest), there has been the emergence of a real (but still vulnerable) middle class, a surge of property ownership (but without firm contractual rights) and signs of honest (but hampered and harassed) entrepreneurship. Yet Ukraine remains a country of people who feel alienated from their political order.

The West has been slow to face these realities, and for several critical years, it damaged its standing by appearing to praise any practice pursued in the name of profit, privatisation and the free market. With good reason, many people in Ukraine have failed to see the difference between privatisation and plunder or between free markets and rigged markets. Therefore, we should not be surprised by the fact that Western ideas are not dominating discussion. We need to change the discussion.

If the relationship between state and society is the core issue, then institutions are the bridge between them. What kind of institutions does Ukraine need?

First, Ukraine needs institutions that operate within a culture of authority rather than a culture of power. Authority is power that is codified and limited to legitimate and openly articulated purposes. And it is not codified by the authorities themselves, but by the people”s elected representatives. Today, all manner of “authorities”, beginning with the militsia, have become very entrepreneurial with the powers they have. That is not authority, but its abuse.

Second, Ukraine needs institutions that operate within a proper framework of law. A system of “codified arbitrariness” (to quote the French authority Francoise Thom) is not law. Laws derive from a coherent and comprehensible legal system founded on Hart”s principle: “the unity of primary and secondary rules”. And law enforcement must be separate from politics. This means that the institutions which enforce the law must be politically neutral. In the United States, as in Ukraine, no one likes the tax authorities. But they trust the tax authorities irrespective of which political party or interest is in power.

Third, Ukraine needs institutions that operate within conditions of transparency. At its most elemental level, transparency is the ability to see. This means the ability to see who people are. When Ukrainian citizens vote for a Communist, Socialist or a member of Nasha Ukraina to sit in parliament, they expect them to advance the programmes of these factions and not appear inside another faction within weeks of taking up their seats. Today, not only in politics but in business, there is very little ability to know who people are. During the next major privatisation, try asking who the leading contenders are – who are the real owners? what is their citizenship? what are their resources? where are they invested? – and see what kind of answers you get.

But transparency also means the ability to know what decisions are taken, where they are taken, by whom they are taken and, preferably, why. Was
the Melitopol accident in May (which destroyed an enormous quantity of munitions and millions of dollars in property – and which, by a few months, preceded the dismissal of Ukraine”s Minister of Defence) really an accident or the result of a decision? To be sure, Ukraine has had bigger scandals than Melitopol. After nearly all of them, it has proved impossible to answer these basic questions. Without credible facts, rumours become credible, even the most incredible rumours, particularly if they are based on conspiracy. People who put their trust in conspiracies rarely put their trust in other people. It is unlikely that such people will (pace President Kuchma, 1996) “pull together at a crucial moment”.

The absence of transparency not only produces an absence of accountability, which is essential to democracy, but cynicism, which is poisonous to it. It also threatens national security, and this was clearly stated by the authors of the 1997 National Security Concept and re-echoed by the authors of the 2003 Law on the Foundations of National Security. The good news is that these are official documents. But they won”t have a practical influence until someone implants the notion that information, like air, is a “public good” rather than a strategic commodity and an instrument of power. Ukraine”s political culture is not comfortable with this notion. Nor is its business culture, which operates less according to the conventions of Western competitiveness than according to the conventions of finansovaya-informatsionnaya bor”ba (financial-informational struggle).

This last point leads to two areas that are rarely discussed when democracy is discussed. The first, indeed, is the culture of business. Today, there are two cultures of business in Ukraine, and two cultures of business are drawing a line across Europe. In one a business transaction is designed to benefit both buyer and seller. In the other, it is part of a Darwinian relationship, a form of bor”ba za vlast” (the struggle for power). In the latter, business norms are conspiratorial: inbred, collusive, opaque to outsiders, and based upon networks rather than markets – networks that straddle the spheres of business, politics and, far too often, crime. These norms are not only a threat to democracy and Ukraine”s EU integration prospects, but to good business.

Two examples will suffice. When the blue eyed genius of Russian capitalism, Anatoliy Chubays, became Chairman of United Energy Systems, he discovered that this vast enterprise – by any reckoning one of the largest in the world – did not possess a budget. He should not have been surprised. If there is no budget, how do you know who is making money, who is losing money, who is wasting it and who is stealing it? A friend of mine working in another large Russian business, co-located in Ukraine, had this to say:

We have three tiers of management: junior management, who are insecure; senior management, who are involved in high politics (and whom we never see) and middle management. And what they do is steal.

Some years ago, another friend negotiated with the regional authorities to lease land for development. Not surprisingly, the negotiations were difficult and protracted, but at last a contract was concluded. Over the next year, he invested most of his capital in this enterprise, and the following year his business became very profitable. At that point, the very authorities who had so carefully negotiated every detail of his contract told him that it was invalid. They presented him with a list of the “laws” he had supposedly violated and threatened to issue criminal charges unless he transferred the land back to them. Since that point, he has spent a third of his time negotiating, a third of his time in court and a third of his time in hospital. Who can have faith in entrepreneurship if entrepreneurs end up in these straits? Who can have faith in political rights if no economic rights exist?

The second area that tends to be ignored in discussions of democracy is the culture of administration. It, too, tends to be authoritarian, compartmented and opaque. In most advanced democracies, the administrative culture values hierarchy, but it also values two antidotes to it. The first antidote is the devolution of authority and initiative: the so-called “bottom-up” culture. The second is an emphasis on horizontal integration, both within institutions and between them: in short, the opposite of the “administrative vertical” exalted in Russia and, very often, in Ukraine. Both depend on the sharing of information. This is what a senior British general meant when he explained to a group of Ukrainian generals how he made a decision: “I communicate one level up, one level down, one level to the left and one level to the right”. By “communicate”, he meant that he listened before giving instructions and that he made recommendations before his superiors gave instructions to him. Do these practices not explain why the most motivated and productive Western institutions are lean and why so many Ukrainian institutions are underproductive and overstaffed? Can a democratic political system coexist with an authoritarian system of administration? Yes it can, and there are examples to prove it. But the coexistence creates an incongruity in a country”s authority structure which is damaging to democracy.

Finally, there is the area we dare not ignore, Ukraine”s force structures: not just the Armed Forces, but the Security Services, Interior forces, Border Service, customs and, of course police. To transform these structures – to train people according to today”s values rather than yesterday”s, to inculcate decent norms of professionalism, to make these professionals feel they are part of society – it is necessary to respect those who try hold onto their professionalism in adverse circumstances, and it is necessary to understand the work that they do. Governments of former dissidents in Central Europe have often failed to do this, and the result is that these most democratic of people have contributed to the democratic deficit in their countries. Governments must also provide these services with money. This is not an alternative to spending money on social welfare. It is part of social welfare. If militsioneriy (police) are paid wages inconsistent with life, it is inevitable that they will cheat rather than die. Here as elsewhere, the goal is not to “eliminate corruption” – a goal which is as unrealistic in Britain as it is in Ukraine. The goal is to create a state of affairs in which corruption is a matter of choice, rather than a matter of survival. If the state cannot afford to fund force structures, somebody else will, and democracy, welfare and national security will suffer.

In conclusion, the point is not to criticise the world, but to change it. We will not change it unless we recognise that institutions matter. Perhaps they matter more than presidents. Institutional cultures, subcultures, resources and resourcefulness have broken the power of presidents, no matter how fairly elected or popular. So, if there is a proper election in Ukraine and the opposition succeeds in winning it, only the first challenge will have been surmounted. The more serious challenge will be to hold power and not simply hold office. The worst scenario for Ukraine is not that Yushchenko loses the election. Far worse is that he wins and then fails. This, too, may be decided by cultural factors. The current authorities are not the product of a democratic culture, but a Leninist culture. The opposition might consider this an amoral culture, but it would be perilous to despise it. Leninists understand organisation, time-keeping, planning, pragmatism and power. Let us hope that enough members of the opposition understand the same.

(1) < /a> The views expressed are the author”s and not necessarily those of the UK Ministry of Defence.