Lloyd Axworthy is the head of mission for the Canadian observer team in Ukraine, and a former federal foreign minister.
On the morning of July 21, I was in a polling station in Obukhiv, Ukraine, as a member of Canada’s election observation team. At stake: Could the overwhelming majority won by President Volodymyr Zelensky just three months ago be replicated in the elections for Parliament?
Ukraine’s parliament – the Verkhovna Rada – is elected in a mixed proportional system: half the members are elected through party lists, the other half in single-member districts. In the view of many commentators, Mr. Zelensky’s chances of winning a majority would be problematic. The strength of opposition parties was in their ground game – which Mr. Zelensky’s recently formed Servant of the People party couldn’t match.
Conventional wisdom, however, didn’t take into account the overwhelming desire of Ukrainians to use their ballot box power to support a new governing group that would tackle corruption, economic pain and social risks, and bring an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Mr. Zelensky’s party won a majority in the Rada, the first single-party majority since Ukrainian independence in 1991.
This was a reset of epic proportions for Ukraine. It opens an opportunity to reform a system long controlled by oligarchs and hampered by Russian interference. Vladimir Putin will know that Mr. Zelensky challenges his effort to promote Russia’s “sphere of influence.” This challenge to Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism was most evident in contrasting TV newscasts that showed millions of Ukrainians going to the polls to express their democratic choice, while Russian protesters were being beaten by police in Moscow simply for asking for the right to make democratic choices.
It won’t be easy sledding for Mr. Zelensky. He must satisfy the varied expectations of diverse regions and multiple stakeholders. The powerful coterie of oligarchs retain their money and their control over Ukraine’s biggest media outlets – and thus their influence over Ukrainian politics. The large turnover of parliamentarians means that an assembly of newbies will need time to learn necessary legislative skills. And then there is the unrelenting pressure on the part of international financial institutions for Ukraine to meet difficult austerity demands.
To foster loyalty, the Zelensky government must demonstrate its intentions to govern by the principles of democracy and the rule of law forged in the Revolution of Dignity that took place between November of 2013 and February of 2014. Any signs of slipping into old, discredited forms of governance will not go unnoticed. A couple I met in Kiev who had participated in the Maidan revolution said it themselves: Any signs that Mr. Zelensky was faltering in the reform agenda would be met with a return to the streets.
To help Ukraine’s new government, the international community needs to first enhance its support for capacity-building. Ukraine’s justice system and courts are in need of reform and overhaul in order to become an independent branch of government and an impartial arbiter of law.
And then, of course, there is the war. More than 13,000 Ukrainians have been killed – with another 25,000 injured – in the past five years. Recently, Russia fired on Ukrainian ships; land mines are being laid on the borders of the conflict zone. Russia is also simultaneously waging cyberwar, posing a grave threat to Ukraine’s stability and democratic openness.
Russian transgressions should be taken to international law tribunals where charges of crimes against humanity can be adjudicated in an open forum. Sanctions, which are biting deeply into the political resolve of Russian elites, must also be strengthened.
Canada was one of the first countries to pledge support to Ukraine’s independence, and public and parliamentary endorsement continues. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s decisions to send a major election observation team, play host to the Ukraine Forum and begin co-operative work on cyberthreats are widely admired in Ukraine. These efforts should be bolstered by a formal agreement of Canadian-Ukrainian partnership to push back on those who would undermine democracy.
The recent round of Ukrainian elections has reaffirmed the power of the ballot box in the fight against nationalist and anti-democratic forces. But that power cannot stand alone.
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