Safeguarding Ukraine’s democracy during the war

President of the European Council Charles Michel, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and President of Moldova Maia Sandu commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Maidan Uprising on November 21, 2023 in Kyiv. Ukraine. European Union / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect

On May 30, 2024, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s five-year term in office expired. Seven months earlier, in October 2023, the date for the regular elections to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, passed by. Zelenskyy and the Rada deputies will remain in office as long as the war continues: The suspension of regular elections in wartime is mandated by Ukraine’s constitution. Still, amid a societal consensus that the war’s continuation makes elections politically, financially, and logistically unfeasible, there is a welling anxiety about the fragile state of the very democratic values and liberties that Ukraine is fighting to defend.

War and the risks of democratic backsliding

War changes many things, including the workings of political power. It demands high societal cohesion, swift and efficient decisionmaking, and the mobilization of the nation’s resources for the war effort. Yet states of emergency tend to strengthen the executive and push democracy toward treacherous waters. And while some democratic institutions, like elections, might by necessity be suspended, democracy is not reducible to elections: It also means the safeguarding of an open, pluralistic society in which its various stakeholders have a voice. The Zelenskyy administration, however, has come under criticism for infringing on political checks and balances and civil rights Ukrainians are accustomed to and committed to defending.

In its 2023 review of Ukraine’s human rights record, the U.S. State Department echoed domestic critics by expressing concern about United TV Marathon, a joint effort by government-friendly channels to produce one continuous broadcast, while denying airtime to oppositional channels. Moreover, reports of harassment, illegal tapping, and the use of targeted mobilization to the front line against dissenting journalists are on the rise.

The regular consultations between the Office of the President, the government, and the Rada were suspended in the immediate wake of the Russian invasion, as the country’s survival hung in the balance, and Zelenskyy put all his energies into mobilizing international support for Ukraine. But two and a half years on, the executive and the Rada have yet to restore a modicum of effective communication and mutual accountability between them. Ukraine’s vaunted decentralization reform, introduced before the war to devolve power and budget funds to local communities, has also taken a hit, mostly because of the pressures levied by the war and the related diversion of resources to the central government. But Ukraine needs strong and competent local governance to continue rebuilding damaged communities and sustain public services during the war, as well as to ensure effective and efficient postwar reconstruction.

Graft and corruption continue to exist and are particularly egregious against the backdrop of battlefield losses and societal sacrifices. However, while the public’s awareness of this problem is in part due to notable successes against corrupt operators—who are being constantly ferreted out and brought to account—graft is primarily a function of patchy and unaccountable institutions, rather than individual bad actors. A public perception that Ukraine’s institutions lack transparency has not been helped by allegations that Zelenskyy relies on a small inner circle of confidants for decisionmaking and has made questionable personnel decisions. In short, the Office of the President has grown increasingly isolated from the people it governs while consolidating power. As the war drags on, the line between wartime necessity and abuse of power is bound to become blurrier.

Ukraine’s democratic backsliding risks undermining the country’s wartime cohesion. Ukrainians are known to act in defense of their liberties, as the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity testify. Moreover, Ukraine’s society today also includes hundreds of thousands of veterans who bled for their country’s freedom and will not suffer unaccountable leaders gladly. Without recourse to elections, the problem of political accountability will become even more acute. But any anti-government protest or upheaval—indeed, any sign of internal discord and division—would be ruthlessly exploited by Russia. Moscow will likely double down on its favorite trope of the “Kyiv regime’s” illegitimacy the longer Zelenskyy outstays his peacetime electoral mandate. Ukraine’s accession to the European Union (EU) and NATO could be compromised as well. The populist right-wing and isolationist forces on the rise in Europe and the United States are prowling for reasons to cut support for Ukraine, and corruption has been their favorite hobby horse. 

War-proofing Ukraine’s democracy

Avoiding illiberal pitfalls will be challenging but possible. Fortunately, neither the Ukrainian society broadly nor Zelenskyy personally harbors authoritarian inclinations: The glorification of the iron fist is simply not part of Ukraine’s history or political culture. Ukrainians and their Western partners also have tools at their disposal. One is Ukraine’s lively civil society, with its knack for self-organization and an ever-watchful eye on the state. It grew in confidence and strength during the war and is as determined as ever to keep political power in check, elections or no elections. A strong investigative media will be key to this task.

Another tool is the financial aid provided by Ukraine’s Western partners. While military assistance should focus solely on the quickest and most effective way to achieve Ukraine’s victory, the $40 billion in budget injections Ukraine needs annually to stay afloat should come with a gentle insistence from donors that their aid be accompanied by reforming and streamlining state institutions and processes. Indeed, Ukraine could and should emerge from this war with more efficient and transparent political, economic, and defense institutions ready to integrate with their European and NATO counterparts.

Finally, Ukraine’s EU membership, the negotiations for which opened on June 25, 2024, should not be treated as a reward that awaits Ukraine if and when it does its homework with one hand while battling the Russians with the other. The accession itself should be a constitutive part of the reform process. Brussels has vast experience in integrating members with various levels of institutional maturity and political stability. Ukraine, however, is the only country to embark on this journey in the middle of a war. But, if anything, war in its grim vicissitudes is the ultimate revealer of a nation’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and of pitfalls and opportunities. It is a great motivator for positive change, in which Ukraine’s civil society is bound to be a powerful stakeholder.

The Russo-Ukrainian war is about more than just Ukraine and its territorial integrity. It is a standoff between liberal modernity and post-modern illiberalism. It is a test of the solidarity, perseverance, and resilience of the world’s wealthiest and most successful alliance of like-minded states—liberal democracies. It is absolutely critical, therefore, that Ukraine wins, and that the Ukraine that wins is one with democratic credentials, not only salvaged from this war but forged in its fires.