Thu, Dec 30, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Can democracy take hold in a torn Ukraine?

Democratic development is enhanced by the population's identification with common symbols across ethnic lines, and institutional reform helps as well

By Alfred Stepan

Certainly, the diversity of forms of governance used over the centuries by Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Austria-Hungary when they ruled what is now Ukraine make creating a classic "nation state," with one dominant culture, difficult to imagine. Consider, for example, the robustness of the Russian language and the strength of the Orthodox Church -- Moscow Patriarchate -- in Donetsk that is in eastern Ukraine and the robustness of the Ukrainian language and the influence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Lviv in the west.

Yet Spain, India, Belgium and Switzerland are all consolidated democracies that do not fit the classic model of the nation state. Indeed, multiple but complementary identities are the norm in all four countries.

These multiple identities emerged because the democratic state provided a "roof" of equal rights above all citizens, whatever their religion, language, or culture. This helped develop a strong sense of identity with the statewide political community. These profoundly pluralistic countries are not classic "nation states," but rather what I call democratic "state nations."

During the recent presidential election, many suggested that reconciling the "two Ukraines" was impossible. But polarization has not been a constant factor in the history of independent Ukraine. On the contrary, Ukraine is closer to being a "state nation" than many people think. Moreover, its prospects for becoming a consolidated democracy are enhanced by the fact that its political elites -- and most ordinary Ukrainians -- have eschewed the idea of being a classic "nation state."

Indeed, more than 80 percent of Ukraine's Russified eastern districts voted for independence in 1991, and the 1999 parliamentary and presidential elections did not split the country nearly as much as the presidential elections this year did. A survey in 2001 of the two supposedly most polarized cities, Donetsk and Lviv, showed convergence in their approval of independent Ukraine, with only 1 percent of respondents in Lviv and 5 percent in Donetsk preferring that Ukraine be divided into two or more countries.

As in other "state nations," surveys in Ukraine indicate that common symbols have helped build elements of a common identity. Both ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians view the 10th-century feudal state known as "Kyiv Rus" very favorably. Moreover, both groups share the 17th-century Cossack warrior Bohdan Khmelnytskyi as their most popular historical figure, and both revile Stalin due to the famines caused by his forced collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s (whereas most ethnic Russians in Russia view Stalin as the heroic state savior of World War II).

These shared attitudes toward Ukrainian symbols and statehood owe much to a recognition that independence will not be well protected by forging a classic nation state, that is, a "Ukrainian Only" state. Thus, the country's declaration of independence 13 years ago was made in the name of "The people of Ukraine," and citizenship was offered to everyone who was born on the territory of Ukraine, regardless of nationality.

I was invited as an adviser to two constitutional committee meetings in Kyiv in the 1990s. My impression from the discussions was that both Ukrainians and Russians in Ukraine were acutely aware of the need to avoid ethnic conflict. In fact, an informal state-building alliance of convenience emerged between key non-communist Ukrainian nationalists and key pro-sovereignty, ethnic Russian communists.

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