Lidiya Smola est la directrice de la recherche analytique et sociologique de la Fondation ukrainienne pour la démocratie, People First.
"Twenty years of Ukrainian independence have passed with constant attempts and declarations to build a democratic society of the Western type. However, the term ‘democracy’ has had different meanings for Ukrainian citizens over time.
The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred amid a systemic crisis in the economy, inflation, deficits, imbalance of social security system, losses of savings by citizens, and, consequentially, an extreme deterioration of their economic situation.
Having given up hopes on the Soviet command-and-control system, at the dawn of independence Ukrainians set great hopes upon democracy, which was associated with well-being among the majority. Public aspirations for democratic changes were actually a desire to achieve the high living standards characteristic of Western societies, with their variety of consumer goods, services, roads and so forth.
In anticipation of the Western democracy to come (read: Western prosperity), the society didn’t realise how certain people, especially the business-savvy, were building their own well-being at through the dubious privatisation of ‘goods’ which until recently were public.
The impoverishment of a considerable part of population, alongside the prompt enrichment of a small elite, led Ukrainians to the second stage of comprehension of democracy. The term began to be associated among citizens with ‘wild capitalism,’ the absolute power of money, corruption of the entire government and system of justice, and also a complete defencelessness of individuals before the state machinery.
There was a period in which there was an absence of the social contract between the people and the authorities, the latter’s astonishing disrespect towards human dignity, and the constant ignoring of civil rights and freedoms. It is not surprising that this state of affaires did not last long.
Ultimately, these caused a unique form of social explosion: the ‘Orange revolution’, which can be considered the most important milestone of the third stage of Ukrainians’ understanding of democracy.
At that time Ukrainians had a possibility to get more knowledge about the best democratic practices (through traditional mass media, Internet, or directly, by travelling abroad) to understand that democracy is, first of all, values and principles and, only afterwards, a certain level of well-being.
These values were promoted by the ‘Orange protests’ and their leaders advocated their application in government. This appeal resonated strongly in the hearts of the majority of Ukrainian citizens. Consequently, there were extremely favourable social and political circumstances for reform.
However, ‘Orange’ leaders managed to quickly lose an enormous credit of trust that they had received from the people. While they were in power, the idea of democracy became associated with social chaos and irresponsibility.
Political scandals, total corruption, unprofessionalism, and a loss of governmental authority, combined with a moralising official discourse on democratic values, provoked a growth in the public’s demand for ‘a strong hand’.
It is no surprise that politicians known for their inclination for an authoritarian style of management became finalists in the presidential elections of 2010. The winner right after taking over as president focused on concentrating power in his hands and strengthening the executive.
The ‘strong’ president’s government did bring about the desired stability however, nor the promised possibility for everyone to be heard. A new power-wielding team which often tries to imitate its Kremlin colleagues did not find time to create a Russian-style authoritarian model based on the principle of ‘sausage in exchange for freedom’.
The loss of Ukrainians’ few democratic freedoms is occurring amid the deepening of the economic crisis and the further impoverishment of the population. This, on the one hand, demoralises the society, and on the other hand provokes sporadic, sometimes rather successful attempts at self-organisation.
Having no hopes of receiving assistance for the resolving of their problems, nor for the protection of legitimate interests from the authorities, citizens try to do it on their own through the means available. They protect historic architectural sites and green areas, shield enterprises from forcible takeover, and make revelations of corruption known to the wider public.
A characteristic feature of the civil activism today is its ‘internetisation’. The internet as a space of freedom is used as a place for intellectual discussions, fast distribution of socially significant information and as a tool of mobilisation for collective actions in real life.
Now, we can hear more loudly and more confidently appeals to kick out politicians who are ‘all the same’. It will be easier to unite Ukrainians for the creation of a national project to develop government answerable to civil society.
Here we see a historical chance for Ukrainians to understand (at last!) the concept of ‘democracy’ in its primary meaning – ‘people power’ – and to make a conscientious choice for a democratic path of development for the country’s future. There is hope that exactly this will overcome our indifference and our irresponsibility towards our country.”