The wider challenge in Ukraine

By Martin Wolf

Financial Times

Published: December 29 2004

We must salute the courage of the people of Ukraine. They have ejected their corrupt masters from power, challenged western indifference and rebuffed the Kremlin's imperial ambitions. They have opened up opportunities for themselves, for the west and even for Russia.

Fifteen years ago a wave of revolutions swept across central and eastern Europe. Two years later, the Soviet Union disintegrated. Earlier this year, we saw one long-delayed consequence of the end of the Soviet empire: the enlargement of the European Union. Now we celebrate another: Ukraine's "Orange Revolution". Ukraine has followed Georgia in a popular revolt against the corrupt post-Soviet fusion of the machinery of the former communist state with business.

What has now been born in Ukraine is a civil society. Its arrival may come to be viewed as the beginning of the fourth wave of European democratisation since the end of the second world war. The first came with the overthrow of fascism and the implanting of democracy in western Germany and Italy. The second came, a few decades later, in Greece, Portugal and Spain. The third came with the fall of Soviet power in central and eastern Europe. The fourth is now at hand.

This is part of a worldwide movement. According to a research project at Maryland University, as recently as 1985 the proportion of humanity living under democratic regimes was only 38 per cent. By 2000, it had risen to 57 per cent. Yet, as Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek International has noted, many democracies are "illiberal".* Democracy may impose the tyranny of the majority or sanction the arbitrary exactions of manipulative elites or populist thugs. A liberal democracy is different: it rests on secure property rights, the independence of the judiciary and freedom of information. It creates a government accountable to the citizenry at large.

The "democracies" that emerged in the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States fell in the "illiberal" category. Russia has been the most depressing, because the most important, example. It has, as I argued in a column published a little over a year ago ("Putin's clampdown could put prosperity at risk", November 5 2003), been riven by the clash between arbitrary power and illegitimate wealth. With the destruction of Yukos, the oil group, arbitrary power has, as expected, won.

The power of the Russian state has always rested on the secret police, from the Oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible to today's FSB. The secret police has been the active agent of an arbitrary state whose power rests on fear. Vladimir Putin, a former officer of the KGB, is part of that tradition. Elections do not constrain his power. They merely make it more legitimate. No wonder Freedom House, the US-based monitoring organisation, recently labelled Russia as "not free".

Ukraine seemed to be on the same path. Mr Putin was convinced of it. A corrupt alliance of power and business appeared securely in control. The ruling elite had chosen a safe candidate (albeit one with a criminal record) in Viktor Yanukovich. To its horror, it found itself in an election against an effective opposition. Yet even that, it was assumed, would be a small problem. Could ballot boxes not be stuffed? Yes, they could. Then something unexpected happened. The people withdrew their consent. The regime faced a choice between slaughter and surrender. It chose the latter. Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing president, did what Mikhail Gorbachev had done in Germany in 1989: he refused to kill.

The rest is not yet history. The peaceful revolution in Ukraine is encouraging: it could bring the benefits of liberal democracy to the second most important successor state in the former Soviet empire; it could bring huge gains to the west; and it could even transform Russia itself. But none of this is guaranteed.

The immediate challenge is in Ukraine. With the authority given him by his emphatic victory, Viktor Yushchenko has an opportunity to create a law-governed, property-owning democracy. His government must dare to separate the machinery of the state from the machinations of private wealth.

Ukraine's people have declared their desire to live in a normal European country. The opportunity this affords to the west is to spread its zone of stability and prosperity eastwards and help Ukraine put limits upon Russian revanchism. Negotiations on EU membership must be conceded if requested. Membership of Nato raises more difficult questions because of its potentially destabilising impact on relations with Russia.

Russia's masters must also make their choices. The election of Mr Yushchenko is a rebuke not just to their machinations but also to their aspirations. If Ukraine is independent, they must abandon hope for resurrection of their empire. If Ukraine now embraces liberal democracy, they may find it hard to deny it to their own people.

Steeped in myths of western hostility, Russia's leaders may well seek revenge. They will certainly object to Ukraine's incorporation into western institutions. So be it. They can be given no veto. It is their own behaviour, not western conspiracies, that has brought them this defeat. They lost in Ukraine because their country offered not the hand of friendship, but the fist of domination. Russia's rulers need to accept that their country's long hostility to the west has been a gigantic failure. Russia will have no imperial future. What it can be, instead, is a valued ally of the west.

The people of Ukraine have secured the hope of freedom and democracy. But they have also laid down challenges to their neighbours. The west must embrace its new friends. Russia must make peace not just with its neighbour but also with its destiny. Mr Putin has made no secret of his regret for the vanished Soviet Union. Russia could instead choose a destiny of prosperity and freedom. It should start by recognising the short-sighted folly of its intervention in Ukraine.

* Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York and London: Norton, 2003)

martin.wolf@ft.com