After the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Ukraine was far from a perfect democracy, but it was much better than Russia. Unlike Russia power changed hands democratically. Unlike Russia before the financial crisis of 2008 The European Union was seen by Ukrainians as a cure for the corruption that prevented social advancement and economic reforms to make income distribution more equitable. Ukraine’s leader at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, promoted the idea of a European future for the Ukraine even as his policies made that more unlikely.
As Timothy Snyder said, “Yanukovych’s career demonstrated the difference between Ukrainian oligarchical pluralism and Russian kleptocratic centralism.” He ran for the presidency of Ukraine in 2004 and won the election by virtue of voting manipulation. Russia supported him and declared him the victor. Yet there were 3 week’s of protests in Kyiv that were called the Maidan in 2013 as a result of Yanukovych reneging on his promise to bring Ukraine into the European Union. As Snyder said, “This was an important moment in Ukrainian history; it confirmed democracy as a succession principle. So long as the rule of law functioned at the height of politics, there was always hope that it might one day extend to everyday life.” As Timothy Snyder said in an interview with Ezra Klein in the New York Times, “So the Ukrainians think of Maidan as a moment where they were together and they resisted and they won.” As Snyder said in The Road to Unfreedom,
“After he lost the election, Yanukovych hired the American political consultant Paul Manafort, who later became famous for working on Donald Trump’s campaign. Manafort tried to improve Yanukovych’s image. Manafort used the same technique in the Ukraine that he later used with Donald Trump. He emphasized cultural differences. As Snyder said, “In the United States, this means playing to the grievances of whites even though they were a majority whose members held almost all the wealth; in Ukraine it meant exaggerating the difficulties of people who spoke Russian, even though it was a major language of politics and economics of the country, and the first language of those who controlled the country’s resources. Like Manafort’s next client, Donald Trump, Yanukovych rose to power on a campaign of cultural grievance mixed with the hope that an oligarch might defend the people against oligarchy.”
In other words, this populist approach was exactly how Trump persuaded a large part of the American working class that what they needed against the elites was an elite business man who would look out for their interests. It was just as absurd in the US as it was in Ukraine. And in both places the strategy worked.
Yanukovych’s strategy worked just as the same as it did for Trump.. Yanukovych used his time in power to concentrate wealth in his own hands. He used Russian practices for his own advantage and stopped rotating oligarchs as had been done in Ukraine. As Snyder said, “His dentist son became one of the richest men in Ukraine.”
Although there was certainly corruption in Ukrainian politics at least, as Snyder said,
“Whatever the flaws of the Ukrainian political system, Ukrainians after 1991 had come to take for granted that political disputes would be settled without violence…In a country that has seen more violence in the twentieth century than any other, the civic peace of the twenty-first was a proud achievement.”
That was why the police attack on protesters in the Maidan came as such a shock to Ukrainians. When their children were beaten by police the Ukrainian people came to their support because they were bothered by the violence initiated by Yanukovych. All of this was in support of Ukrainians siding with Europe rather than Asia as Putin wanted. After the fact, Yanukovych legalized his use of force against the students and criminalized the action of the protesters. Copying Russian measures laws banned public gatherings, freedom of expression, and undefined “extremism” which ultimately meant anyone Yanukovych did not like. Russians helped him to do this.
At the end of 2013 Russian forces invaded Ukraine to rescue their puppet Yanukovych. Ukraine had many of the things Russia did, but it was not the same.
Ukraine had at least a rudimentary democracy. And that is important. From that beginning it grew.