By: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
As I sit here and watch tanks moving toward Kyiv, I, like all freedom loving people, am heartbroken. I know these people. I have met and worked with these people. Less than twenty years ago, in June, 2004, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation sponsored a program in Ukraine where I witnessed firsthand the vision and courage of those struggling to establish a new democracy.
As our delegation of leaders from across the US and Europe toured the beautiful building where the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) meets, we admired a large mural that depicted the nation’s history as well as its declaration as an independent democratic nation in 1991. As I looked around the corridor, I realized that many of the people there were also in the painting and it dawned on me that in a very real sense, I was in the presence of the George Washingtons, Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons of Ukraine. I was literally standing with many of the architects of the democratic Ukraine.
Today, all of us at the State Legislative Leaders Foundation again stand with the leaders and peoples of Ukraine as they fight to defend that democracy against the aggressive invasion of Vladamir Putin’s Russia. For four days in June 2004, we met to discuss the long history of Ukraine (a nation that dates back more than ten centuries) as well as the current challenges facing the young democracy. With our visit, and the shared conversations and experiences between American and Ukrainian leaders, I would like to think that we, at least in some small way, aided the nation in their journey from communism to democracy.
Just like the first decades of democracy in America (remember the failed Articles of Confederation, the Whiskey Rebellion, the blatantly unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Act and the War of 1812), the first three decades of democracy in Ukraine have not been without significant challenges. In fact, just months after our visit, the nation experienced “The Orange Revolution,” with Ukrainians protesting that the results of the elections were fraudulent.
The first round of voting was held on October 31 between the incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko of the opposition. With no candidate receiving a majority of the vote, a runoff election was held a month later (November 2004). In that race, Prime Minister Yanukovych declared victory, but Yushchenko and his supporters, as well as many in the international community, argued the election was marred by intimidation (Yushchenko was poisoned) and fraud. In light of these protests, the Ukrainian Supreme Court declared the results of the runoff void and Yuschenko won a December 23rd election with 52% of the vote. Ukrainians took to the streets in 2004 to defend their democracy against internal corruption just as today they are taking to the streets to defend it against external aggression.
In 2019, the nation took a very large step toward becoming a stable democracy with a peaceful transition of power from one governing party to another with actor/ comedian Volodymyr Zelensky of the new Servant of the People party soundly defeating the European Solidarity party’s Petro Poroshenko. A few months later, President Zelensky called for a snap parliamentary election in which his party won an outright majority, a rarity in a nation with more than twenty recognized parties.
While Ukraine seems to have survived the growing pains often associated with new democracies, it is unclear, despite the tremendous leadership of its President and the unparalleled valor of its people, if it can withstand the onslaught on democracy from its much larger and better armed neighbor. As I stood beside them 17 years ago, SLLF and democracy-loving peoples around the world stand with them now. The United Nations and people around the world are offering weapons, economic sanctions, prayers and moral support….I just hope that is enough.