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Exporting Democracy

Charles Wise and the Parliamentary Development Project for Ukraine

revolution scenePostcards from a revolution: Orange-clad protesters crowding into Kiev’s Independence Square by the tens of thousands. The dioxin-ravaged face of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. Banners emblazoned with the campaign’s simple slogan: “Tak! (Yes!) Yushchenko!” The joyful celebration of a people who had accomplished the unimaginable, ousting a deeply entrenched oligarchy in the face of massive corruption, voter intimidation, and blatant election fraud.

That was then, this—the real work of the Orange Revolution—is now. It isn’t exactly picture postcard material, but the work is just as critical—indeed, it’s indispensable—to democracy in Ukraine. Here is where the policy wonks step in to create the country’s vital bureaucratic infrastructure, and they’re creating it quite literally from scratch. New laws. New procedures. New committees and new commissions.

You might say that Charles Wise waited over ten years for this moment.

Tall and lanky with silver hair and chiseled features, Wise is a professor at SPEA, the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, and director of the Parliamentary Development Project (PDP) for Ukraine. The PDP was established over a decade ago to assist the Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada, in developing its legislative processes.

With offices in Bloomington and Kiev and funded by a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the PDP was officially launched in April 1994 to help strengthen five key areas: legislative and executive relations, legislative committee structures and operations, legislative process, budget and appropriations activities, and representation and citizen relations.

Ukraine is, in essence, recreating its constitution, transferring many of the powers from the president to the parliament. Human rights, trade laws, monetary policy, judicial powers, local government structure—all these basics of democracy and many more are being articulated for the first time and the PDP is on hand to help.

While the notion of a free state may be inherently appealing to Ukraine’s new leader, another incentive for democratization looms large: entrée to the European Union. To be a card-carrying member, Ukraine must satisfy EU’s comprehensive requirements, particularly those regarding local self-government, local democracies, and decentralization. Helping Ukraine fulfill those requirements is a priority for Wise and his PDP staff. “Once Ukraine starts down this road, there will be lots of deadlines and milestones. I suspect that Ukraine will be involved in this process for a significant period of time.” Fresh from a trip to Kiev where he conferred with EU officials, Wise is pleased to report that the European Union is familiar with his project and endorses it. “They’re excited about us getting involved,” he says, beaming with boyish enthusiasm. “They know about us. They want to work with us. That’s just incredible to me.”

What a difference a year makes. Rewind to the fall of 2004. As Ukraine’s October 23 elections approached, Leonid Kuchma was ending his ten-year presidential term amid accusations of corruption and scandal, including allegations that he was involved in the 2000 murder of an investigative journalist. Meanwhile, Kuchma’s anointed successor, Viktor Yanukovich, had served two prison sentences for violent crime and was the hand-picked choice of Vladimir Putin and the oligarch clans. Contender Yushchenko, the pro-Western leader of the Our Ukraine movement, was hospitalized in Vienna, claiming that he had survived a government-inspired attempt to poison him. Mayoral elections in Mukachiv were marred by the theft of ballot boxes, assaults on members of parliament, voter intimidation, and vote tampering. Two-thirds of Ukrainians thought that the presidential election would be falsified and they were right, despite the EU’s urging for a free and fair election.

The future of democracy itself was at stake, says Wise. “Some years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski said that without Ukraine it would be impossible to reconstitute anything like the former Soviet Union, but with Ukraine, it would be entirely possible. Ukraine had both material and symbolic importance within the collection of states that comprised the former Soviet Union. Besides Russia, by population Ukraine is the largest republic of the former Soviet Union and is the most culturally and ethnically aligned with Russia. Without Ukraine, you simply cannot have a unified bloc of nations that means anything strategically.”

Projects like the PDP are not without their critics. How does Wise respond to cultural relativists who insist that endeavors like his foist democracy upon unwilling or, at the very least, unprepared populations? “It is impossible to force feed democracy to a society that does not desire it,” says Wise. “That’s not what the United States has been doing in Ukraine. The society has to want it. Sure, there may be segments within a society that don’t want democracy. And people may have different conceptions of what democracy really is, especially if they’ve never experienced it. But I don’t think that the West has been trying to force countries to take a democratic path. The West targets societies that want democracy and request assistance in attaining it. Once the request is made, Western governments are there assisting opposition groups in their demand for human rights and a say in their government.”

Wise makes no excuses for promoting democracy. “Most Western countries are not in the mood to apologize for promoting democracy,” he says, with enough edge in his voice to suggest this isn’t the first time he has confronted this argument. “Western countries believe philosophically and politically that democracy is a good thing. We believe that citizens under all level of society will be better off under democracy versus an oligarchy, theocracy, dictatorship, or any other system.”

Wise hastens to add, however, that groups like the PDP never try to lead other countries into duplicating America’s brand of democracy. “Different cultures will perform better under their own tailored form of democratic institutions,” he says. “Yes, there are some basic requisites involved, like free elections, but there is also tremendous variety among Western European democratic systems. Some have presidencies, some don’t. Some are parliamentary, others aren’t. Some have two houses of legislature, some have one. We’re not pushing any particular form of democracy.

“Our approach in Ukraine is that we provide options. If we get a particular committee in the parliament working on, say, military justice, we might show them eight or nine different alternatives currently in use by other countries. It’s not up to us to say which alternative is best for them, but to expose them to the range of possibilities so there can be a democratic debate over which alternative is best for them. We don’t have a stake in which model to choose, as long as they are choosing among democratic models.”

But democracy comes at a price: Most citizens under Soviet rule didn’t know the perils of poverty—hunger, disease, homelessness, prostitution—until the collapse of communism. Do champions of democracy feel responsible when newly democratized nations suffer?

“You have to understand that in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union there were three mega-transformations underway at once,” explains Wise. “They were transforming their government, their economy, and their civil society. That’s a magnitude of change across countries that the world has never seen before. They don’t have a blueprint for that kind of massive change. But there’s no way any given country would say, ‘Let’s put the brakes on this and wait so we can plan everything out first.’

“It’s true that there was a built-up expectation that if they adopted democracy they would immediately get Western prosperity, and when they didn’t, sizeable segments of society were disappointed,” Wise continues. “But those expectations were never realistic. The fact that there were drops in the economy didn’t have anything to do with adopting democracy and everything to do with the fact that dislocation of a communist system manifested itself in massive change. That magnitude of change has real cost associated with it. There is no huge Soviet bank to tap into to subsidize the transition. The Soviets were out of money and that’s why the system blew up. Even if all those countries just threw themselves into the arms of Russia they weren’t going to have the old system again. Hankering for the old system may be nostalgic, but that’s all it is.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge to democracy in a country like Ukraine is the absence of cultural antecedents. How to you introduce a new political theory—and a new way of life—to a people who have no frame of reference? “Part of what underwrites our commitment to democracy is the belief that people can learn,” says Wise. “Our own country had some fits and starts associated with democracy. The original Constitution was the Articles of Confederation. They worked with that for ten years. The people of the United States decided that it wasn’t working and adopted a new system of government, a new constitution.”

In the end, says Wise, when it comes to designing a new rulebook for a newly democratized nation, “there are no hard and fast rules. It’s not something you have to get exactly right from the beginning. It’s a process you initiate, and people learn, and institutions evolve. People engaged in democratic decisionmaking seem to get better at it as they go along.”

—Debra Kent