Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Democracy's Key Lesson

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, December 17, 2013 --  

Ukrainians are right to be outraged by their president's policies, but they'd better learn to live with them.

When hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in central Kiev, the country looked ripe for revolution. The streets were filled with Western-oriented opponents of President Viktor Yanukovych, the politician hailing from a part of Ukraine where hearing Russian is more common than Ukrainian, and sympathy for Moscow runs deep. U.S. Senators visited to speak out on the side of the protesters, earning angry and belittling statements from leaders in Moscow.

While the paragraph above could describe current events in the Ukrainian capital, it also describes events nine years ago. Back then, Yanukovych had just been declared the winner of a fraudulent election, which was denounced by then Senator Richard Lugar.1 This election was later voided by the country’s supreme court, leading to what has been called the Orange Revolution.

That revolution faded away as the revolutionary political parties fought amongst themselves and ultimately lost a narrow election to Yanukovych in 2010. The loser of the 2010 election, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, sits in jail for sketchy charges that have earned international condemnation.

Now, history seems to be repeating itself. After abruptly pulling away from an economic pact with the European Union under pressure from Russia, mass protests returned to central Kiev. U.S. Senators John McCain and Christopher Murphy offered their support to the protesters to no avail. Yanukovych met with President Vladimir Putin today, receiving an offer of $15 billion in loans and a discount on natural gas.2 This is sure to enrage protesters, who fear Ukraine being pulled away from Europe and into Russia’s proposed customs union.

No matter what you hear from Western politicians and the press, this is not as clear of a case of right and wrong. Sure, it is true that Russia does not have Ukraine’s best interests at heart. Russia has long given Ukraine loans and cut-rate natural gas because Russia enjoys the leverage it gives them. But Ukraine takes that gas and credit knowing full well the consequences. And many of Ukrainians in the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern and southern parts of the country, where heavy industry was concentrated both under Soviet rule and now, actually do support closer ties with Russia.

Remember that stolen election back in 2004? Although the re-run was decided in favor of the pro-Western parties, the results showed only a slight shift of less than 5 percent that tipped the balance of an evenly divided electorate.3 This balance went the other way in 2010.

The bottom line is that the anti-Yanukovych protesters are not representative of all Ukrainians. Sure, hundreds of thousands of them feel passionately about their cause. But this is not sufficient reason to overthrow an elected government, especially when there are ample people from other parts of the country that support its positions.

Make no mistake: massive loans from Russia and a customs union are terrible ideas for Ukraine, and the country would probably be better off with closer ties to the European Union. But being a democracy means living with bad leaders who manage to win an election. Choosing closer economic ties with one block of countries or another is a legitimate subject for dispute that is best settled by the democratic process. (Other disputes, like the imprisonment of the former prime minister are more appropriate for a revolution, but this isn’t what is motivating the demonstrators.)

The Ukrainian president’s terrible policies have rightly earned him the condemnation of many of his people. But the democratic way to get rid of unpopular leaders is to vote them out in the next election — not to turn them out in a revolution every nine years.

For Ukrainians who want to join the West, this is the key lesson that must be learned. Without functioning democratic institutions, policy disputes between communities in a the divided country cannot be handled peacefully. Sure a Russian customs union sounds bad. But it’s not nearly as bad as teaching easterners’ that elections don’t matter, and that seizing power by force is the only way to go.

Related Web Columns:

The Rise of the Rusted Curtain, February 9, 2010

Abandoning Friends, September 22, 2009

Revolution for a Slow Decline, November 23, 2004


1. New York Times, Lugar Hints at Tough Measures on Ukraine Vote, November 23, 2004

2. Voice of America, Putin Makes Bold Move to Keep Ukraine in Moscow’s Orbit, December 17, 2013

3. OSCE, OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report, May 11, 2005