David Kramer and Robert Nurick talk about the latest Freedom House report on nations in transit, including Ukraine, how much the memory of a democratic experience matters and how painful democratic transformations may be
UW: USSR collapsed 20 years ago and the impression was that imperialistic and authoritarian trends are in the past. Yet, the latest Nations in Transit report by Freedom House says that trends represented by Putin’s Russia have anchored in Eurasia and become fashionable in Central and Eastern European countries, mainly Orban’s Hungary and Yanukovych’s Ukraine. What are the key reasons behind this situation?
DK: Mr. Putin and all people around him aren’t interested to see neighbors moving towards democracy or European integration. I think that memories of 2003 with Georgia and 2004 in particularly with Ukraine are still very fresh in Mr. Putin’s mind. It’s contributed to paranoia that the West is trying to sparkle similar movements in Russia. This paranoia was further fueled by events in the Middle East and Northern Africa in early 2011. It partly explains Mr. Putin’s position on Syria. He doesn’t love Assad, but he doesn’t want see Assad going as leader fallen from power. Some leaders in the region, including Ukraine, have taken the bad example he set in the region showing consolidated control of the media, pressuring civil society, trying to create a rubber stamp parliament, all of the going after opposition. With the upcoming election here there is a possibility to reduce the consolidation of power. As for me, Mr. Yanukovych has discovered that Mr. Putin is not such a warm friend of his or of Ukraine’s.
UW: In the report Ukraine’s scores declined in 5 of 7 Nations in Transit categories. For example, weak judicial independence has not improved while corruption is close to the level of autocratic regimes. What can be the threshold of no return for Ukraine?
DK: Any country can cross over threshold and return back. I don’t think that there is anything irreversible. Moving in democratic direction isn’t a linear path. For instance, we saw Hungary’s great progress in democratic development and a reverse recently. Ukrainians had unrealistic expectations after the Orange Revolution and Orange leaders badly disappointed them. Mr. Yanukovych came to power through democratic elections, but his means of government have not been democratic. But the situation here isn’t irreversible. It isn’t too late. One of the reasons why we have done this report is because we feel that it is still changeable. Ukraine’s scores are going down, no question, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t recover. It’s our hope that our reports can help governments and Ukrainians themselves bring more positive changes here.
UW: You meet with Ukrainian government officials as you work on each annual report about Ukraine. Freedom House is known to be very critical towards the situation in Ukraine. How willing are Ukrainian authorities to answer your questions?
DK: None of us started this assessment last and this year with an automatic view that Mr. Yanukovych would be a democratic leader. Actually we were very critical towards Orange leaders. We do not try to present Orange authorities as good and democratic and the party led by Mr. Yanukovych as bad and undemocratic. This has been a slow deterioration for years and has picked up speed in the past two years. Yet, we have been very pleased and impressed that Ukrainian top officials agreed to meet with us this year and last year. I think this is a positive thing for Ukraine. If we tried to do this report in Russia, we wouldn’t have the same access there at all. If we tried to do it in Belarus, we probably would not be allowed to the country. It suggests that Ukraine is very different from those two countries.
UW: Human rights NGOs, such as Ukrainian Helsinki group, claim the increase of government pressure on them while Freedom House reports the improvement of the civil society criterion in Ukraine in the past year…
DK: There are two trends here and they may seem contradictory but they can actually co-exist. In one of them civil society is more active and animated than it was a year ago. When we were here a year ago, we were struck by the sense of hopelessness and frustration. This year, people seem more energized and active. Having the election in October helps because this is a specific event coming up which they can focus on. The second trend is that the government is applying more pressure and this gets to the issues of the freedom of association and assembly. These trends are not mutually exclusive. You can have active civil society that can actually increase the government's desire to crack it down because they may view it as a threat. That partly explains why we cite both the increase in civil society activity and recognize that a number of organizations are facing more pressure and harassment.
UW: Why are FSU countries or nations in transit so vulnerable to anti-democratic models of power that include monopolization of economy and politics? Are democratic institutions in Ukraine weak and unstable due to the lack of liberal background, impact of the financial crisis or Russian impact?
RN: The reasons vary from country to country but there are some broader trends. One is that culture matters, and by culture I mean history, not genetics. There is a difference between countries which have had some memory of a democratic experience and those which have not. It's one of the reasons why we've seen such positive results in the Baltic states. These are people whose vision of what their country should be is wrapped up in the memory that includes democratic institutions, even if not perfect. Their experience is very different from that in soviet states. For them, part of becoming a post-soviet country was the sense of returning to what they saw as the true Latvia, the true Lithuania or Estonia that had been interrupted. The memory of culture and values associated with that were very important. It's different for countries that don't have that memory even with people that have healthy instincts on political issues. It's harder when this is something in their heads that they very much believe in but not something they've experienced in their lives. And transitions are hard and painful because they are affected by people's experiences and that's something you can't easily erase. But it's not irreversible. Experiences can change and generations change. In this part of the world, though, these transitions coincided with deep personal insecurities and impoverishment for many people.
In Western countries there were people who wanted these transitions to succeed but we made mistakes too, partly because all these things were new to us, too. We hadn’t really gone through this before. There were a lot of arguments in the US and Western Europe about what was the best way to support democratic transition with very strong and often opposing views. As a result, many people viewed what they associated with democracy as bad things for them. When you do polling and ask them whether they like democracy, they often say “not so much.” But when you ask them if they like the attributes of democracy, i.e. a responsive government, free press and others, they like all this.
DK: This is one of the most important factors. It's not to say that people in those countries don't want to live in freedom. But the transition from the system in place to the new form of government is a very tricky process. We shouldn't underestimate the terrible impact of the soviet system where millions of people lost their lives. If you compare countries in East Central Europe and, I don't like this term, but for the lack of a better one, FSU except for the Baltic states, East Central Europeans have followed more of a parliamentary system. Sometimes, it's not the most efficient system but it tends to reduce chances that one person will come and establish dominant control. In this region, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are presidential systems. With the experience of the past 70 years here, perhaps it's best to not concentrate so much power in one position or, as it turns out, in one person. Unlike Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, Ukraine has had several transitions of leaders. Being in power is not a matter of life and death in Ukraine, but it could be the difference between staying free and being thrown in jail. Ukraine needs to move away from this artificial choice. It's important to have opposition figures, free press and strong civil society. I don't think there is sufficient appreciation among the leaders of this region that those are important elements to democratic development.
UW: The previous year was marked by social outcries for autocratic regimes and the whole globe saw it. Are autocratic regimes, such as Russia, Belarus and Central Asian states, really afraid of the Arab Spring phenomenon?
DK: The events in the Arab world made these leaders much more nervous. These leaders tend to be paranoid, insecure. I would describe Mr. Putin in those terms. They see these events at quite a distance from their country but they worry about them as a virus that is going to spread to them. They want to do everything possible to kill this virus. The Chinese were nervous about what happened in the Arab world. They blocked the term “jasmine”, “Jasmine revolution”, because they feared that people would look it up and use it and it would spark a revolution in China. The Chinese who are seen as being so much in power and on the rise are worried about their future. So, it isn’t just in this region. But there is no question that this increased the paranoia on part of Mr. Putin in particular. We saw the anti-American rhetoric in the Russian presidential campaign. But I would argue that it wasn’t just for the elections. I think it’s Mr. Putin who is genuinely anti-American and suspicious about the US. Remember his comments about Hillary Clinton after the Duma election in December. He accused her and the State Department of getting all those people to the streets. It’s the sense that the Russians wouldn’t do this on their own, only if they’re paid or encouraged by the US. It’s this sense of outside forces threatening Russia. In 2004, after the terrible Beslan tragedy, Mr. Putin gave a speech and talked about how outside forces wanted a piece of Russia. Nobody wants a piece of Russia! He is an assertive, aggressive, paranoid and insecure leader, and that’s not a good combination. And I don’t know if Mr. Yanukovych here is the same. I don’t sense that he views the US as a threat. He just feels that we aren’t a reliable partner. I don’t think Mr. Yanukovych has the same paranoia about the US in his mind.
UW: Which conditions should evolve in Ukraine to create competitive environment in economy, politics, media and other areas?
BN: The technical instruments are described in the report. Here's some good news: they include some aspects of the electoral law which, if implemented, should provide more transparency and predictability. But opportunities for manipulation in the upcoming election worry a lot of people. These opportunities and their impact should minimized to the smallest extent possible. This means real access for observers to all levels of the electoral process, from local districts up to the Central Electoral Commission. Administrative courts have to act fairly and quickly in response to abuses which have to be publicized quickly, as well. It will be an obligation of opposition and independent parties to pay attention to that, in addition to observers. Ideally, a group should be put together to start dealing with problems they see in advance of the election, such as pressure on people and so on. Broader political issues around that include the incarceration of opposition leaders. It's good that the opposition parties decided that they want to contest in the election despite the jailing but the fact that opposition leaders are in jail raises questions both here and abroad about the legitimacy of the election outcome.
UW: What is your outlook of the upcoming parliamentary election in Ukraine?
RB: It’s going to be very competitive. Opposition parties decided to participate in it despite all the troubles because they see prospects. I hope that some of these problems that we’ve identified are addressed enough so that the result, if it’s close, can credibly be described as legitimate. I certainly don’t wish for an election which produces an unstable and weak government.
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration