Liberal democracy: a difficult choice for Ukraine

The Kyiv Arch Friendship, temporarily renamed the Diversity Ark in honor of the 2017 EuroVision Song Contest. (C) NurPhoto / SIPA USA / PA images. All rights reserved. Since the start of the war in 2014, Ukraine has experienced a difficult period both for its citizens and for liberal values, which are the bedrock of any democratic state. The war has affected almost everyone in the country, and the conflict has become a justification for the illiberal initiatives undertaken by the Ukrainian state apparatus. For Ukrainian society, the choice in favor of liberal freedoms is becoming increasingly difficult. At first glance, restricting them seems necessary.

In December of last year, Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post on the arrival of illiberal democracy in America. He cites the examples of Hungary, Iraq, the Philippines, Russia and Turkey as states where some form of democracy is maintained, but where a range of liberal freedoms is disappearing. It is not enough to strengthen the rule of law, minority rights, freedom of expression provisions in national legislation – these standards must be put into practice. As Zakaria writes, America’s culture of liberal democracy is weakening today, and this process should concern both Republicans and Democrats.

These worrying trends can be seen across the Atlantic Ocean from Ukraine. Indeed, Ukrainian citizens support women demonstrating, Muslims facing discrimination and suspicion, and newspapers whose correspondents have been denied access to presidential press conferences. But this support seems to reflect an opportunity to observe the crisis in liberal democracy elsewhere. And that begs the question: are liberal values ​​just an object to be observed from a distance for Ukraine? Is this just an opportunity to sympathize with the crisis of democracy in Europe and America?

It would be wrong to say that Ukrainian citizens cannot see illiberal tendencies in their country. But there is one factor holding back our reaction to them: the external threat. In discussions of liberal democracy – from freedom of expression to the right to peaceful assembly – the importance of respect for human rights does not come first.

Are liberal values ​​just an object to be observed from a distance for Ukraine? Is this just an opportunity to sympathize with the crisis of democracy in Europe and America?

There is an expression in Ukrainian “ne na chasi”, which literally means “no time”. The phrase does not imply that something is unnecessary, but that it should be postponed for a certain period of time. In the case of Ukraine, that time will come after the end of the war. When the security issue of the country is resolved, that is when different groups in society can talk about various issues.

These non-governmental institutions and informal groups criticize and correct the agenda of Ukrainian public institutions, in order to ensure that they follow the interests of the whole of society. But as Cas Mudde writes in “No, we’re NOT all Charlie (and that’s a problem),” this review can also be selective and subject to self-censorship. Writing days after the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office, Mudde argued that it is easier to speak for a whole company than to speak as an individual. At the time, media campaigns that called for solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in the name of liberal values ​​attracted people who, before the attack, would have refrained from criticizing or supporting the magazine’s staff.

In February 2017, a situation similar to the Charlie Hebdo attack took place at the Kiev Center for Visual Culture. Members of a far-right nationalist organization attacked an exhibition by anarchist artist David Chichkan. But here Ukrainian society has failed to demonstrate large-scale solidarity in favor of freedom of expression.


David Chichkan’s “Lost Opportunity” exhibition after his terrorist attack in February 2017. Source: Critique Politique. Far-right activists smashed windows, tore up photos of Chichkan and pulverized slogans accusing him of separatism and mocking Moscow. In this exhibition (“The Lost Opportunity”), Chichkan demonstrated his attitude towards the possibility of reforming the Ukrainian state which he believes the Ukrainian citizens lost after EuroMaidan. The artist believes that the opportunities for change have been replaced by a nationalist agenda and policy led by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, which is based on the far-right ideology of Ukrainian nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s.

The consensus of justification of Ukrainian society towards the people who have turned patriotism into vandalism is becoming more and more tangible. Indeed, when a country is at war and the border with the aggressor state remains open, right-wing politicians offer a clear understanding of the situation. This image is simplified and is based exclusively on the national idea and ethnocentrism. And it is possible that the right-wing view of the current situation is incompatible with the Constitution and broadens our understanding of free speech. But they give people the opportunity to solve the problems facing the country and the society through very simple methods.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula that would show how nationalist organizations influence politics. Indeed, electoral support for presidential or parliamentary campaigns does not always reflect this influence.

Since EuroMaidan, historians and other scholars have been discussing the extent to which the far right was involved in the 2014 protest, and whether it was the driving force behind it. There is no one-size-fits-all formula that would show how nationalist organizations influence politics. Indeed, electoral support for presidential or parliamentary campaigns does not always reflect this influence. When a country is fundamentally at war, this arouses patriotic feelings and makes certain slogans (if not the exclusive domain of the right) more visible. This is how society turns right. I am talking about those ideas which are right of the center, and which are not compatible with liberal values, but which are not a direct expression of far-right political opinions.

In Ukraine, political parties, apart from clearly nationalist parties, do not have much ideology. They rely on the personal charisma of their leaders. This is why it is easy for Ukrainian politicians to take up slogans that appeal to their electorate. According to recent polls produced by the Kyiv International Sociological Institute, Ukrainians cite war, standard of living, economic situation and security as the most important issues for them. And if the Ukrainian electorate wants to build a wall with Russia, then the refusal to use Russian social media could be the prototype – it doesn’t have to be made of bricks.


A public display detailing the victims and deaths on the front lines of the Donbass conflict. (c) NurPhoto / SIPA USA / PA images. All rights reserved. On May 16, President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree on the decision of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine “to apply special personalized economic measures and other restrictive measures”. Among others, the popular Russian social media sites VKontake and Odnoklassniki fell under the sanctions. And given that these websites were only named “economically dangerous” in the third year of the Russian-Ukrainian War, it raises questions about why this step was not taken sooner. . The ban on social networks (which are mainly used for mobilization or entertainment) has become more important than education campaigns on why transmitting personal information to Russian social networks could be risky for users.

There were no major protests against this decree. The debate over whether freedom of expression can be restricted in times of war has divided Ukrainian society between those who are willing to give up human rights under conditions of war and those who are not. Indeed, Ukrainian journalists, public figures and human rights defenders are among those who have supported the ban on Russian social media.

In Ukraine, the limits of the permit, which can be violated by the state, are becoming increasingly unclear. And it is no less difficult for a society traumatized by war to resist simplifications and ignore the destruction of something precious before its eyes.

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