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Ukraine is on the frontline of democracy, but can it keep its own?

Ukraine fights on the frontline of the entire democratic world. But while the fight is ongoing, is there a possibility that Ukraine will lose its democracy?

What defines autocracies and democracies? How strong are the former, and is it true that the latter are in decline? Why did Vladimir Putin, who used to be a very cautious dictator, suddenly decide to start a full-colonial war in the middle of Europe?

Ukraine is on the frontline of democracy, but can it keep its own?
Estimated Reading Time: 21 minutes

Brian Bonner: Hello, everybody. This is Brian Bonner. Welcome to this week’s Ukraine Calling on Hromadske Radio. We have a special treat. I have Professor Lucan A. Way in the studio with me. He is the co-director of the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine at the University of Toronto, one of the great global capitals of the Ukrainian diaspora. Welcome to the program, Professor.

Lucan Way: Thanks, it’s great to be here.

What is the motivation to study Ukraine?

Brian Bonner: You’re neither Canadian nor Ukrainian. You’re American, with more degrees than I could stuff inside my head and more knowledge of Ukraine than I have. How did you end up where you are?

Lucan Way: In the 1980s, I was a college student, and there was perestroika (reforms in the USSR that lasted from 1985 until 1991—ed.). Things were happening in the Soviet Union. I came to Moscow and then started living in Ukraine in the 1990s. I was a graduate student working as a consultant for the World Bank. I lived in Donetsk and worked for a good eight months.

Then, I wrote a book on Ukrainian democracy and why it struck me. Because it’s the most democratic country in the former Soviet Union. I mean, despite everything, all the problems facing Ukraine, despite Russian aggression, it’s remained remarkably democratic, even, I would say, to a remarkable degree during wartime.

Brian Bonner: What’s the scope of the Ukrainian studies program and its popularity? Has that changed during the war?

Lucan Way: Yeah, certainly. There’s a massive Ukrainian diaspora that supports the program. We have always had a lot of Ukrainian programming, but that obviously stepped up enormously during the full-scale invasion. We’ve had webinars—I had almost two a week at the start—and there’s been a tremendous amount of interest.

But now we’ve also developed some academic programs. I’m happy about a non-residential scholar program. Initially, the idea was that we needed to bring scholars to safety. However, Ukrainians want to stay in Ukraine and help out the country. My goal is to fund Ukrainians who want to stay here and fight but also allow them to do academic work.

We use Zoom to have seminars and hear about really fantastic research. So that’s one thing. Then, we also have the Munk School, which has a program with the Kyiv School of Economics. It’s so inspiring. We brought over master’s students, and we just had a policy brief competition with Ukrainian master’s students on issues critical to Ukraine.

Brian Bonner: So all the teaching and learning only happens in Toronto? Are we talking about hundreds or thousands of students? I’m curious about how wildly popular this is.

Lucan Way: Not thousands. I would say there’s a good cohort, you know, 50-60 students, very interested in Ukraine. Interest in Ukraine was really high at the beginning of the war because people were so shocked by the atrocities. And I think the interest was sustained for a much longer time than I thought. I thought Ukraine fatigue would set in much earlier.

The victories, the fact that Ukraine could push back Moscow from the Kyiv region, and the success in the counteroffensive in Kharkiv and then Kherson kept up the interest in Ukraine. With the difficulties in the more recent counteroffensive that didn’t go as well as some had hoped, there is a little bit of Ukraine fatigue, especially in the United States.

Ukrainian experience: What can you learn from this country?

Brian Bonner: We’re in the middle of a life-and-death drama, so it never gets boring. Professor Way is the author or co-author of at least three books, including one that I’m reading on the way over here: “Pluralism by Default: Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics.” He also has two more books along those lines, I guess, with his co-writing partner, Steve Levitsky.

Lucan Way: Right.

Brian Bonner: The professor studies global trends in democracy and dictatorship. I read enough of the book, including all the Ukraine sections, to know that he knows quite a lot about Ukraine. He’s here for four lectures. I attended one at the Kyiv School of Economics, but he had three others at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and other places.

Now, professors like to teach, but this is not your first trip here. You’ve been here many times, and you have lived here, but this is your first trip here since 2018. You said it’s been six years.

Lucan Way: It was 2018, yeah.

Brian Bonner: Professors also learn. What did you learn on this trip?

Lucan Way: I wanted to come. My family was a little resistant; I have two 12-year-old boys. It’s so inspiring to come here. First of all, the level of sanity in this place is just remarkable, given what people here are up against with these air raid sirens at 3 a.m. every night and stuff. I think most people would go insane. Compared to the United States, it’s a striking contrast.

I was here in the 1990s. I lived near Palace Ukraine, right in the center of Kyiv. Society has changed so dramatically since then that I’m struck by the level of innovation. Take a place like the Kyiv School of Economics. Timothy Mylovanov has just put it all together. He’s gotten generators, classrooms, and shelters so they can teach under any circumstances. Just the level of resourcefulness, people should come here to learn resilience.

Brian Bonner: We could do tourism and promote tourism.

Lucan Way: That’s like Chornobyl, but it’s much less dangerous. It is truly inspiring. And it feels like such a young country, too, with this kind of energy; it’s remarkable. The last six months have been a hard time, and it’s far from being a heady day. Of course, I think the view of Zelensky has kind of shifted a bit. But still, even in this context, I think the fact that people are not just surviving but still kind of thriving is remarkable.

Brian Bonner: Well, you came here during their morale boost of the US finally approving (a $60 billion military aid package – ed.).

Lucan Way: I was on the train. I heard the news; our entire train was a “hurrah.” That was such a relief.

Brian Bonner: Now, I think we can stay in the fight for at least a year.

Lucan Way: I think for longer. It’s a bit worrisome, but for now, the $60 billion is a good chunk of change.

Why did Russia invade Ukraine?

Brian Bonner: I want to ask you if you have an analysis of why Russia invaded Ukraine full-scale. Is it because Ukraine was becoming too strong as a society and a democracy, or was it too weak and considered easy picking? Or was it none of the above and just the imperial impulse?

Lucan Way: I used to have a lot of Russian friends until they supported the war. What always struck me was that many of the Russians have relatives here (in Ukraine – ed.), and they have no idea about Ukraine. The first time it struck me was during the Orange Revolution (2004 protests in Ukraine against a rigged presidential election – ed.) I was in Moscow with an old friend, and he was like: «you know, he’s a «fascist» (the then-leader of opposition and later President Viktor Yushchenko – ed.)». I’m like: «what are you talking about?» I mean, he’s the mildest-mannered guy, and he’s not a fascist.

They think they understand Ukraine, but they don’t. What happened to Vladimir Putin? He just had the (Russian Federal Security Service) FSB do these pollings of Ukrainian public opinion. It turned out that (President Volodymyr) Zelensky, as we all know, was not very popular at the time. Putin was a very good picker, so he saw Ukraine as weak and corrupt. He shared all the stereotypes that everybody else has in the West about Ukraine being corrupt.

So I think it was really because he thought there were easy pickings. The other important thing is that he saw Europe as weak and divided. The narrative on the left in the United States is that NATO was too threatening, but the reality is that it was perceived as too weak. It’s the opposite; it’s the weakness of the West and the perceived weakness of Ukraine, which was wrong, that led him to invade.

Brian Bonner: Isn’t it amazing that a neighbor who shares so many ties can get it so wrong?

Lucan Way: It’s actually sort of interesting, almost psychologically. But there really is a deep-seated dismissal of Ukraine as provincial. They just have no idea what it’s like.

Political transformation of Ukraine

Brian Bonnerl: You say you’ve been here since the 1980s when you were in the Soviet Union.

Lucan Way: I was a student in Moscow, and I stayed at the Lybid Hotel in April 1989. Shcherbytsky (Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, head of Ukraine under the Soviet Union in 1972-1989—ed.) was still in power; he was a tough guy. That was a period when Moscow was much more open and optimistic, and Ukraine felt kind of dead. My good friend, Chrystia Freeland, is now the deputy minister of Canada; she was here as a student.

Brian Bonner: You’ve seen a lot of transitions since then, and I want to ask you about that. I don’t know what label you want to use. I mean, are we an unconsolidated democracy, a fragile democracy, or a developing democracy? You certainly wouldn’t have put Ukraine in the autocracy category.

Lucan Way: There’s a big asterisk because you can’t have elections, so that’s clear. But what’s remarkable and what people don’t quite realize? Elections are one part of democracy; there’s also the legislature, there’s also the media. Given the fact that Ukraine is facing an existential threat, it would be easy to justify very autocratic measures in Ukraine because the threat is real. This is not a made-up stuff. Yet the level of openness is just remarkable, given the mobilization and the number of amendments.

Can Zelensky become a dictator?

Brian Bonner: We’re in a state of martial law, and this invests tremendous power in the government, which can be abused. Now, your book is very interesting because you go from Kravchuk (Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine – ed.) to the presidents and point out the mistakes they made and why they lost.

I don’t need to tell you that Ukrainians are more than happy to vote people out of office. And do, because we don’t know the outcome of our elections, that’s what makes them elections. What dangers does Zelensky have to avoid when he’s leading a country at war, and should people be afraid that he’s not going to want to give up these powers?

Lucan Way: I think you should. It doesn’t matter who the leader is; you should always be afraid that they’re not going to give up power. Anybody who’s hubristic or self-confident enough to think they could be president of an entire country is never going to want to give it up. That’s the essence of politics, and he’s, I’m sure, no different from anybody else.

But within Ukraine, there are enormous constraints because you have a very strong civil society. Also, this is less intuitive: His party is quite weak and fractious. I guess that it’ll follow the British trajectory, when (Winston) Churchill led Great Britain during the war (World War Ii), and then he was voted out after the war.

Brian Bonner: Yeah, we still need a well-developed party system. They revolve around personalities rather than ideologies, structure, or tradition.

Lucan Way: Ironically, that helps democracy. When you have a cohesive political party, people follow the leader. But in this kind of party, you have members of Zelensky’s party who are effectively in opposition, and so that actually helps pluralism. That’s the irony, and that’s the point of my book.

Brian Bonner: It’s a fascinating discussion and a fascinating book. I recommend that people check him out. Just go on YouTube, and you’ll see Lucan Way, his presentations, and a lot of issues.

Democracy vs Dictatorship: Global Trends

Brian Bonner: Do you think Ukraine will emerge from this stronger or weaker?

Lucan Way: Unfortunately, a lot of that depends on things that are totally outside of Ukraine’s control, which is the American Congress. And that’s the ultimate tragedy. The next election in my home country, the United States, is existential for us, but for Ukraine, it really is existential.

Brian Bonner: Is there a global trend in democracy and dictatorship? And because of the situation in Ukraine, what is the potential for either to dominate? People paint pretty bleak pictures if Russia wins this thing.

Lucan Way: I think that’s definitely a danger, but I don’t think Russia will ever win for the simple reason that you can’t win a colonial war. This is a colonial war. No one’s won a colonial war; there have been one or two examples in a hundred years. In Ukraine, it won’t be pretty, and there will be a lot of death and destruction, but the Ukrainians are never going to do what they’re told under Putin.

Brian Bonner: Does democracy need Ukraine to win, to flourish?

Lucan Way: The point of my book is that I think democracy is certainly in crisis, especially in the United States. At the same time, if you look at broader democracy, it is doing shockingly well. In the 1990s, democracy went way up. It spread enormously, in large part because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States was the only superpower, Russia was in disarray, and China was still relatively underdeveloped.

Of course, since the 2000s, China has become a major global power. Given that liberal dominance created a dramatic expansion in democracies, you might think that reducing dominance would lead to a dramatic decline in democracy. But that actually hasn’t happened. About half of the countries in the world are democratic.

Brian Bonner: And there are many elements to democracy. Do you go with the Freedom House standard?

Lucan Way: I think they all revolve around very similar things: free and fair elections, allowing the opposition to criticize the government, and organizing speeches. There are a hundred different measures, but no matter what measure you use, democracy has not actually declined dramatically. Even since the financial crisis of 2008, people have talked about the decline in democracy.

You should look at the numbers; they are quite stable. The reason for that, and this is the point of the new book I’m writing with Steven Levitsky, is that the world has become much richer and more urban and developed in the last 50 years. The irony is that even though the international environment has worsened enormously and you have the rise of authoritarian populists, the domestic structural conditions of the economy, the fact that capitalism has spread has actually given quite a healthy basis for democratic politics.

Brian Bonner: Are those prerequisites for democracy? Education, affluence?

Lucan Way: It’s pretty essential. We argue that having a system of private property and a strong, robust private sector is essential because to have a democracy, you need opposition, and to have opposition, they need money. If the state controls all the money, they’ll never get it because the government won’t give it to them. So you need the private sector to give them money. So, the irony is that the neoliberal reform of the 1990s helped democracy in many ways. In the developing world especially.

Brian Bonner: Are you of the school that says there are universal human rights and people have this universal desire for freedom, justice, and economic sustainability, or do you believe that there are cultural reasons why democracies tend not to flourish in the Middle East or Africa, among other places?

Lucan Way: I don’t go for cultural arguments. Look at a place like Kuwait; before it discovered oil, it was quite pluralistic. It wasn’t a democracy, but power had to be shared between the king and a merchant class, and it had a pretty robust civil society. When oil was discovered, suddenly, about five guys got control of massive resources, and everybody was dependent on them. Guess what? You have an autocracy.

So it’s not about culture; it’s about control over resources and the bucks, in a sense. That’s what matters. This is why state control of the economy is so bad for democracy; that’s why you need a private sector. You need autonomy from the state more than anything else, and then you also need to be rich because if you’re rich, many people have resources.

Take a country like Romania. For those of you who are old enough to remember Romania in the 1980s, this was not the place you would expect democracy. It was under this Stalinist (Nicolae Ceaușescu – ed.), but now it’s a thriving democracy. It’s remarkable, and I think a large part is because of capitalist development, which has given the opposition access to resources.

Brian Bonner: Does being in the European Union help? To set standards and benchmarks?

Lucan Way: Yeah. But it can’t be just the EU.

Ukraine and Russia: different paths

Brian Bonner: We both had experience in Russia and Ukraine, and bringing it back to the two nations, how did they end up in such different places? Putin’s worldview, he articulated once, is that there are only five independent countries in the world, and the rest are satellites.

Lucan Way: They all miss the “good old days” when the Soviet Union was a world power, and they’re just bitter that that’s gone. Russia just wants to be taken seriously and just can’t handle the fact that people like Ukrainians would have their views on things.

Brian Bonner: Right, they just can’t handle it. He believes he’s a man of the past.

Lucan Way: Look at his speeches; just before the invasion, he had two speeches, on the 21st, 22nd, or 23rd. He’s a self-taught historian. I don’t know what kind of crap he reads. But he wasn’t reading from the prompt; this is a true believer; he believes that Ukraine is not a nation, and he’s just so angry. This is a cranky old man who has so much power.

There are probably a whole bunch of these guys anywhere, but none of them have this kind of power that he has. I’ve spent a lot of time in Russia, and his view of Ukraine is widely shared. Russia went into the war way underprepared.

Is Russia going to collapse?

Brian Bonner: But they learn on the fly, too, and they have the resources to do that. The other thing is, are we in a bubble here in Ukraine? Because we have this wishful thinking: ‘Oh, he’s fragile, he’s going to collapse, and there’s opposition.’

Lucan Way: Actually, that’s interesting. One thing I’ve heard a lot here, which surprises me, is that many people talk about the breakup of Russia. I think that’s a pure fantasy. Many of us remember the fall of the Soviet Union, which collapsed very quickly. But why did it fall? The person at the center of power, (Boris) Yeltsin, in Moscow, wanted it to fall because he wanted to overthrow (Mikhail) Gorbachev.

That’s why it fell so easily. But no one in Moscow will ever support the collapse of Russia. It’s a pure fantasy; we should get over that. I can understand emotionally where that comes from because I would want Russia to disappear, too, if I were living here. But it’s not going to happen.

Brian Bonner: And I don’t know whether you see a way out of it or whether Russia is capable of democracy. And I preface that by saying what I saw in Ukraine from the time I first came in 1996 to now, which is 28 years later. Ukrainians are citizens of the world, literally sometimes. Compared to Russia, they have a much more worldly view. And Russia has just gone down in real isolation.

Lucan Way: It’s true, it’s just so awful. I don’t buy this idea that, culturally, Russians can never be a democracy. The problem is that Putin’s not going anywhere.

Brian Bonner: And he’s quite healthy for his age of 71. Well, that was the other thing we read about.

Lucan Way: That’s all speculation.

Brian Bonner: His health?

Lucan Way: Yeah, we’re all looking at his complexion and hoping. The other thing is reality.

How and why do autocracies succeed or fail?

Brian Bonner: You like to ask big, provocative questions, so I’ll turn it around and ask you: How and why do autocracies succeed or fail? The same goes for democracies because whatever Putin is, he’s a successful autocrat.

Lucan Way: If you had asked anybody, any Russian specialist in 2021, to imagine a scenario where the Russian president goes to war, and thousands of his people die, would Putin survive? You say no way. Putin, before 2022, was incredibly cautious. He invaded Crimea, Georgia in 2008, but he always took over areas that were kind of sympathetic to Russia.

Brian Bonner: He had softened up the ground.

Lucan Way: Yeah, historically, there’s a lot of Russian speakers. But something happened in COVID with him, and then he just does this completely insane thing, just insane on a lot of levels. Yet, after two years, sadly, he is no weaker than he was before. I think that it’s shocking to all of us how strong he is.

Brian Bonner: So, is ruthlessness a part of success for Xi (Jinping) and Putin and the Iranian mullahs?

Lucan Way: Well, part of my argument is that this is another book that just came out in 2022 on revolutionary dictatorships, the social revolution. The revolutions that took place in those years, the revolution in Russia in 1917 and China in 1949, emerged out of violent conflict. That forced them to create these very robust security apparatuses, very robust militaries.

In Iran, you have a Revolutionary Guard, which is incredibly powerful. It emerged out of the Iran-Iraq War. And Russia, of course, is not a revolutionary regime in that sense, but Putin was lucky. He inherited two things from the Soviet era: one is an incredibly weak civil society. 70 years of totalitarianism, which was wiping out any form of Russian civil society that existed, so you had a weak society there. And then he also had an incredibly strong coercive apparatus of the KGB. The world’s strongest coercive apparatus ever.

Russia emerges. It’s an unfair battle because, on one side, you have society, which is just incredibly disorganized, and police, political police, which has all the skills and resources you could imagine.

Brian Bonner: We had that on a smaller scale here in Ukraine. We had Kuchma and Yanukovych, who were aspiring autocrats, and we had the same KGB apparatus. We came to a different place.

Lucan Way: Well, you also had regional divisions, and you had Galicia (western region of Ukraine – ed.).

Brian Bonner: But do you see a strain in Ukrainian history that they are not autocratic? Is it a more democratic, less autocratic culture?

Lucan Way: Well, I don’t know about the culture, but things are more divided regionally. Having the regional divisions, I see that as a big factor. Look at Ukraine before 2014; this part of my book is that you look at turnover; it’s always between a kind of Russophile versus Ukrainophile. There weren’t parties because the parties were very weak, but it was regionalized. And so the voting was always divided.

Brian Bonner: So, if Yanukovych had been a tougher autocrat, we could be living in Putin’s land.

Lucan Way: No, it’s not about toughness. He was tough in February of 2014. But no matter what he did, he couldn’t control the west (of Ukraine). So, large parts of the army just defected.

Brian Bonner: He lost control.

Lucan Way: He lost control, which was inevitable. His mistake was overplaying his hand; he was too tough, the massacre on the Maidan.

Brian Bonner: There are a lot of examples, and you know better than I do, of autocracies that become democracies or arguably democracies. How does that process start? And once you are in that camp, I assume you believe the staying power of democracies depends on quite a few factors.

Lucan Way: In political science, the transition from dictatorship to democracy happens for a whole number of, often completely random, reasons. Why did the transition happen in Eastern Europe? It was mainly because you just had a guy, Gorbachev, come to power who decided he didn’t want Eastern Europe. He didn’t want to expend the resources to keep Eastern Europe in the Soviet sphere. That was just pure luck, and that was kind of random.

Brian Bonner: It was a fortunate stroke of history.

Lucan Way: Yeah, subjective factors. But then the question is, what happens afterward, right? You have Africa; you have transitions. But then, because control over the resources is much more centralized, it’s very easy to return to autocracy. So those places that stay (democratic – ed.) are rich capitalist countries like South Korea. Actually, among the high-income countries in the world, not including oil cases, 97% of them are democracies. The only exceptions are Hungary and Singapore. So it’s, as I say in social science, both necessary and probably sufficient for the rest of the world. But to become a democracy is to be a rich capitalist.

Another book in progress

Brian Bonner: All right, that’s another great reason for prosperity and sharing of the resources. Well, we would take hours more if we talked about Canadian and American politics. We should probably wrap it up and leave it there because I know you’re here on a short-time schedule. You’ve got a lot of things to do and a lot of people to see. But when is your next book? When do you hope to have that out?

Lucan Way: About a year.

Brian Bonner: With your partner, how does that work? He writes a chapter, you write a chapter, or you just edit each other?

Lucan Way: No, we’re just very good friends. We write different chapters together, but we almost always agree.

Brian Bonner: In the same space, that’s great. Well, that’s why he’s your partner. And the solo book, that was a good experience without your partner?

Lucan Way: That was my kind of heart and soul. That was from years of living in Moscow in 1991.

Brian Bonner: Yeah, you took it. I recommend this book, “Pluralism by Default: Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics.” It’s a really good book. I look forward to the other two with your partner, too.


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