Aleksander Smolar: “Full democracy can be revived in Ukraine only if citizens put pressure on the government”
For 21 years now, since Poland moved from socialism to democracy, Polish political scientist Aleksander Smolar has headed an influential NGO, the Stefan Batory Foundation, which was instrumental in developing open civil society in Poland and which has been involved in a number of national and international projects in Eastern Europe.
In 2012, representatives of the NGO were members of an international mission headed by Aleksander Kwasniewski and Markus Merkel to monitor the election campaign and voting in Ukraine. Smolar is scheduled to speak about his foundation and the Polish experience of how think tanks and NGOs can contribute to civil society in the YE Bookstore in Kyiv on 6 November as part of a joint project run by the Polish Institute in Kyiv and The Ukrainian Week.
U.W.: What are the possible scenarios for EU-Ukraine relations after the 2012 parliamentary election in Ukraine? What should the West do if the election is deemed to have been rigged and therefore invalid?
If the accusations of mass infringements during the election are found to be true, it will have a large impact on relations between the Ukrainian government and the European Union. The latter will put a lot of pressure to prevent the signing of the Association and Free Trade agreements and will push for scaling down EU-Ukraine relations. This may have an utterly adverse effect on the prospects of Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU. One can also think about a selective EU strategy that will limit the negative consequences of the EU policy for Ukrainian society and instead will put significant pressure on the ruling class. But another consideration will be to avoid increasing incentives that push the Ukrainian government into the hands of the Kremlin and to leave the road to Europe open for Ukraine.
U.W.: Slawomir Matuszak, your colleague from the Centre for Eastern Studies, says in his recent study that “oligarchic democracy” has emerged in Ukraine since 1991, something Ukrainians will have a hard time overcoming in the short- and even long-term perspective. How can this “vicious circle” of Ukrainian politics, when power relations are defined by large business, be broken?
The problems of democratic mechanisms of governance fusing with the power of money exist in the most democratic countries. For example, famous analyst Francis Fukuyama devoted an entire issue of his magazine, The American Interest,to the oligarchization of American democracy. But the United States remain a democracy in which public opinion and voters can use government rotation mechanisms and amendments to legislation (such as election laws) to limit the political power of oligarchs. Ukraine’s problems are much deeper. Above all, the democratic nature of the election itself is an issue. This follows from the fact that some leading members of the opposition camp are imprisoned and thus cannot participate in the election. Second, the voting process is non-transparent, which is something foreign observer missions have stressed and something against which Ukrainian citizens have protested. Third, democracy is impossible without a free and pluralistic mass media. It is going to be increasingly difficult to maintain a dictatorship or semi-dictatorship, oligarchic or otherwise, in the contemporary open world. People see in examples of other countries that this is not how things should be.
I consider any pessimistic forecasts ungrounded. But full democracy can be revived in Ukraine only if citizens who refuse to have their rights curtailed put pressure on the government.
U.W.: Are contemporary Ukrainian opposition forces able to offer any alternative path for the country’s development in the current conditions?
Ukrainians themselves can better answer the question about what the opposition can do. Its impact on political realities in your country will depend on its creativity, its connection with the everyday concerns of ordinary Ukrainians and its ability to mobilize people.
U.W.: What role should think tanks and expert environments play in forming civil society, in particular using Polish experience?
Developed democracies have many such institutions. They are instrumental in formulating new concepts and answers to numerous economic, social and political problems. In this way, by contributing to the corpus of ideas circulating in society, they influence the ideas and actions of political parties and NGOs. There is progress in the development of such institutions in Poland, but it is insufficient for a country with a high growth rate and huge needs.
U.W.: What are the key mechanisms that think tanks use to influence public opinion? Is it enough to simply write an analytical report and make a presentation?
Think tanks in developed countries rarely limit themselves to studying public opinion. Their main function is to prepare analytic studies that would show the real state of affairs in various key areas. Based on this, solutions to existing problems or development strategies are suggested. Think tanks usually have dissimilar concepts – they are often linked, organizationally or ideologically, to political parties, which determines their different decisions. Confrontations between them are part of a healthy democratic life.
U.W.: Why do think tanks in countries with little democracy tend to merely consume grant resources of donors and produce a lot of eyewash without helping society in any palpable way? What are the necessary conditions for them to turn into engines of democratic change?
Centres for studying public opinion should have independence guarantees so that their results would not be used to manipulate society. Their independence helps society develop identity and thus generates greater self-awareness, self-organization and political activity.
U.W.: What function should the state have to enhance the efficiency of think tanks and NGOs and their influence on society? How does this system work in Poland?
In democratic countries, where the elites are able to think long-term, conditions for the development of civil society are put into place, for example, through the tax system. In Poland, you can transfer one per cent of your taxes to any NGO. The state also makes sure there is no pressure on agencies that monitor various institutions of public life.
U.W.: Is it fair to say that there is a separate “power of expert environments” in Poland today which determines public opinion in the country?
Unfortunately, it is too early to speak about this kind of power. An expert environment is indeed capable of playing a significant part in drafting reforms that the state can use. Experts can form public opinion, attract attention to various pathologies, such as corruption, and propose draft laws to counteract them. In general, they can help enhance the level of awareness and public debates, thus contributing to democratic life.
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