Ukraine has been independent for less than two decades. MTV is ten years older than Ukraine’s independence. If you are of drinking age, you were born before Ukraine was independent.
The violence that took place on the floor in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine sends a terrible message to the world. There are 450 members of the Rada, and six were hospitalized. It was the second act of public violence during a session of the Ukrainian governing body this year.
For the past six years, the world has witnessed the democratic process at work in Ukraine, beginning with the Orange Revolution. It can be argued that of the former Soviet republics, Ukraine has been one of the most successful at implementing a democratic system. That is why it is crucial that the message of democracy and discourse win out over the message of physical violence, and members of the Rada must deliver that message immediately.
This week has seen another former republic “re-elect” a dictator. Alexander Lukashenko managed to get 79% of the vote, but that does not seem to be satisfactory. Even with such a clear-cut, “fair” victory, post-election opposition imprisonment in Belarus has been front page news.
Who was one of the first to call and congratulate Mr. Lukashenko on his victory? None other than “Rose Revolution” product President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia; Georgia is often considered a success story for democracy in the region, and news of this call certainly came as a surprise (at least to me) and seems to send a mixed message. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has expressed concern over the post-election violence, and seems to be taking a cautious angle with regard to the results.
I have deep roots in Ukraine as it is the home of my great grandparents. I have had the opportunity to work with a number of members of the Rada in the past and have spent a fair amount of time in the capital city of Kyiv, a number of rural oblasts, and Odessa. There are hundreds of stories out in the last few days having to do with violence in the Rada, the elections in Belarus, and the recent rise in number of ultra-right organizations. There is one storyline I have not yet read, and that is one of a fledgling democracy.
The following may be the understatement of the year – the initial development of a democracy is not easy, and often is not pretty. We are seeing that unfold right now as the world watches Ivory Coast, with a democratically elected President unable to take office because the man he beat won’t let him. Or in Zimbabwe, where a democratically elected Prime Minister is forced to share power with the dictator he defeated.
We have had our own brushes with violence between individual political leaders early in the development of this Democracy. Sitting Vice President Aaron Burr mortally wounding Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Congressman Preston Brooks beating Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856. South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman punching South Carolina Senator John McLaurin on the floor of the United State Senate in 1902 (well past the “early” stages of democracy).
Violence in the governing body of Ukraine must end; at the same time, Eastern European nations that have embraced democracy, such as Ukraine and Georgia, must send very clear signals as to the importance of democracy in the region, regardless of party or loyalties. Fistfights and lockouts send very different messages.
There are very able, very capable communicators within the Rada, and now is the time for the message of civil debate over debilitating violence to be delivered. While the world is getting mixed signals on the future of democracy in another former Republic this week, Ukrainian elected officials from all parties must make it very clear that civil, democratic debate and elections will stand.