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Andreas Umland and Ingmar Bredies: Democratic Ukraine, Autocratic Russia: Why?

[Dr Andreas Umland is a lecturer in contemporary East European history at The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Upper Bavaria, general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society”, and co-editor of the German-Russian journal"Forum for the Ideas and History of Contemporary Eastern Europe".]

The last years' developments in the former Soviet Union were fascinating for the specialist and might have puzzled the layman: Why have Europe's two largest countries developed in such different ways? Russia has returned to authoritarianism while Ukraine seems to be maturing towards a real democracy. How did this happen – in spite of these nations' similar Eastern Slavic Orthodox cultures and intertwined histories?

Ukraine's Cultural Divisions versus Russia's Marginal Minorities
Valuable answers by social scientists have often focused on the particular circumstances of Ukraine's and Russia's transformation since 1990. The Ukrainian nation's division into two regional and political cultures, recently compared by Ivan Katchanovski with the more tragic split of Moldova, creates numerous problems, but had also the effect of supporting pluralism. The stalemate between the historically distinct regions of pro-Western Galicia, Transcarpathia, Volhynia and Bukovina, on the one side, and of pro-Russian Eastern and Southern Ukraine, on the other, has meant that the country's political landscape has become, asLucan Way put it, “pluralistic by default.” While not per se a democracy-promoting factor, the geographical differentiation of Ukraine's population constituted, as Paul D'Anieri showed, a hindrance to excessive centralization of power.

Post-Soviet Russia, in contrast, is culturally more homogeneous. Often seen as a multi-national country, the Russian Federation's population is, in fact, dominated by its 80% of ethnic Russians among whom there is little cultural-regional differentiation. The remaining 20% are split among small nationalities and diasporas who play an important role for Russia's self-definition as a poly-ethnic state. Yet, these minorities do not represent a consolidated political force exerting direct influence on Moscow's foreign and domestic policies comparable to that of the South Eastern or North Western parts of Ukraine. In addition, Russia has suffered from an, as Michael McFaul argued, “unfinished revolution” under Boris Yeltsin. Russia's incomplete transition of the early 1990s, especially the underdevelopment of its new democratic institutions, had always been a liability. Ultimately, it led to Putin's autocratic restoration. Further arguments explaining Russia's unsuccessful reforms have focused on the democracy-subverting role of Yeltsin's Chechnia adventure of 1994, or dubious political repercussions of Russia's large energy reserves.

While these explanations are valid, they do not fully answer the question why Ukraine is, so far, the only 1922 USSR founding republic on the way toward a consolidated democracy. Additional explanation can be found in Ukraine's history or rather in Kyiv's historical mythology.

Ukraine's Pro-Democratic Historical Mythology
First and foremost, Ukraine's centuries-old struggle for political autonomy and independence from foreign dominance – Mongol, Muscovite, Polish, Lithuanian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Soviet – is the guiding idea of modern Ukrainian historiography. The preservation of sovereignty is supported, to one degree or another, by most relevant decision-makers and intellectuals. As Taras Kuzio has argued, Ukraine can be seen as a post-colonial country where a largely emancipatory, anti-imperial and liberationist nationalism supports rather than counteracts democratic tendencies. In spite of having a relatively low 3-4% barrier in its parliamentary elections (conducted according to proportional representation), the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, has never featured a radically right-wing, ultra-nationalist faction since the country's independence in 1991. This is in stark contrast to most other East European and even many West European countries of the post-Cold War era.

Moreover, identity politics in contemporary Ukraine more often than not refers to pre-Soviet proto-democratic experiences seen as constitutive for the Ukrainian nation and demonstrating its embeddedness in Europe.

Thus, the idea of democratic rule is traced back to the era of Kyiv Rus from the 9th til 12th century considered the Golden Age in Ukrainian pre-national statehood. Kyiv Rus is seen as a state having grass-roots democracy in local assemblies (vicha), developing the relatively sophisticated legal code of Ruska Pravda, and making tentative attempts to establish an elective monarchy. With the rise of the Cossack Hetmanate in the 16th century, there emerged another Ukrainian proto-state playing an important role in contemporary national identity. Being armed peasants, the Cossacks formed, along the Dnipro riverbank, a military republic with a male assembly – the Rada – that chose its Hetman, a military leader, by election. The Cossack's love of freedom and semi-democratic rule influences Ukrainian self-images until today. The Cossack Hetman Pylyp Orlyk drafted, as early as 1710, one of the world's first constitutions that sought to transform the Hetmanate into an electoral monarchy. Orlyk's basic law never entered into force, and is, by contemporary standards, a simplistic text. Yet, in its time, this document gained recognition as a serious document, and served as a blueprint for future constitutional designs.

During the turmoils of the revolution of 1917-1918, there emerged briefly the Ukrainian People's Republic with an assembly composed of delegates from all relevant political parties. This short, yet by today's standards already largely democratic experiment was particularly noteworthy for the commitment of its leaders to the rule of law.

Even more important than the actual course of history is that these and some other trends inform historical myths defining national identity today. Thus, Ukrainians see themselves as having a tradition of individualism and love of freedom, and their country as always having been diverse, lacking strong rule, and even ungovernable. Sometimes cited as factors explaining Ukraine's seeming inability to secure national self-determination, these features have, more recently, been supportive of democratic transition. They promoted the moderate and consensus-seeking elite behavior demonstrated in the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2007 confrontation between parliament and the president.

The Russians' View of Russia's Imperial Legacy

This is different from the historiography and autostereotypes dominant in Russia today. To be sure, Muscovite history too had a number of proto-democratic tendencies. Russia can also lay claim to the heritage of Kyiv Rus and Cossack self-rule. Moreover, in the Middle Ages, the famous city states of Novgorod and Pskov featured a collective ruling organ representing the nobility (veche), elections of executive power holders, as well as rudimentary checks and balances. Later, the Zemsky Sobor (Assembly of the Lands) elected the first Romanov Tsar Mikhail. His descendant Alexander II, in 1861, started the so-called Great Reforms. Alexander's comprehensive project included liberation of the serfs, legal reforms, introduction of local self-government, and creation of a legislative organ. Eventually, the transformation started by the “Tsar Liberator” and continued in the 1905-1907 revolution might have led to the emergence of a constitutional monarchy along West European models. Yet, Russia's first attempt to transit to democracy was subverted by the devastating effects of World War I.

While these facts are, of course, well-known in Russia, they play a relatively minor role in Russian national mythology and self-perception. Instead, affirmative assessments of figures like Alexander Nevsky or Peter the Great, and, partly, even of Ivan the Terrible and Josef Stalin dominate popular historical memory today. These men were successful military leaders and often modernizers of sorts. Yet, they also concentrated power and did not tolerate checks on their prerogatives. Even the most pro-Western among Russia's Tsars, the almost universally adored Peter the Great, played an ambivalent role in Russian history: The modernized state that Peter left was also highly centralized, if not proto-totalitarian.

In a way, Putin's meteoric (if oil-price driven) rise can be explained against this background. Although a lucky rather than great leader, the current prime-minister and de facto ruler of Russia seems to fit the image of a new Peter – an authoritarian, yet (seemingly) effective modernizer.

It is less the glorious history of the Russian people and their many geniuses (more often than not, harassed by their government) that define Russians' view of their fatherland's history. Instead, Russia's imperial legacy of military might, territorial expansion and victories in wars is what, many Russians feel, makes them unique. Most Ukrainians see the Dnipro Cossack republic not as a militaristic order (that it, in some ways, was), but as a stronghold of freedom. Kyiv's elite welcomed the break-up of the Soviet Union as liberation. In contrast, the Russians are currently rediscovering Muscovy's Byzantine legacy of caesaropapism. Their deep frustration about the loss of their empire and super-power status in 1989-91 has some observers led to speak of a “Weimar syndrome” and to compare post-Soviet Russia with pre-fascist Germany.

History is obviously not everything. As post-fascist Germany's development shows, countries can change rapidly. However, as long as Russia and other post-Soviet republics will keep a national mythology that pays little attention to proto-democratic beginnings in their history, they will remain trapped in their authoritarian traditions. Ukraine provides an example of how a country can break with an unusable past, and create a pluralistic polity drawing on appropriate (if, sometimes, idealized) precedents in its national history.

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