In the circumstances Ukraine currently finds itself it is perhaps indecent to begin with a quote from a former Prime Minister of Russia but Viktor Chernomyrdin was onto something when he exclaimed that “we wanted to do better, but things turned out as always”. Chernomyrdin was Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and said those words at a time when change and reform were still notionally perceived as a real possibility during the Yeltsin years.
Nevertheless it is perhaps a phrase that could be used as a benchmark against every Ukrainian reform and policy change, while not forgetting that reform and policy are not always the same thing. For a given policy can change all too easily while serious reform must be consolidated and made irreversible – or at the very least extremely difficult to reverse. Ukraine is not the Russian Federation and comparisons to it are often rather pointless. Likewise, whether Ukraine becomes a democratic and rule of law success story should necessarily, despite the hopes of many Russian liberals and Western Russia hands, be viewed as a harbinger for change within Russia.
As with any other sovereign state, Ukraine’s reform policy are aimed at creating a democratically vibrant, economically robust and socially cohesive polity with a set of predictable policies that set targets for developing national ideals. Having never fared well under either Russian imperial administration nor Soviet collectivist governance models, Ukraine is understandably attracted to the “European” model in which the individual is celebrated, promoted and defended.
Any move from an emphasis on the individual rather than the collective represents a profound psychological shift for the polity. This will be the case whether the domestic battle is against the oligarchy or the idea of “state capture», breaking apart the old entrenched economic interests or allowing the individual to maximize his or her capacity within the system. That shift in mindset would have to take place in any transition to equality before the law and fixing the movement of due process.
As such, the issue of individual “rights” will soon have take it’s place near the top the reformist hierarchy. The ideal of individual rights is after all, the tip of the reformist spear that will eventually slay the beast of the nation’s atrocious past governance, and it will do so by destroying an institutional framework that was built on a foundation of powerlessness and a lack of protection granted to the individual.
If today’s generation of young Ukrainians is indeed the generation that will plant the seeds of the trees under which their grandchildren will sit in the shade, then it is also beholden upon this generation to insure that the State will allow them to plant and nourish those seeds as it sees fit with a minimum of interference. This can only be done by institutionalizing and strengthening the various rights which are the core values of a liberal democracy. These include human rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, religious rights, legal rights, family rights, individual rights, equal rights, the right to privacy and all other “rights” we may be proscribed by law. Naturally, all this raises a huge variety of difficult questions.
How many Ukrainians now know where those rights emirate from and how to invoke grievance processes they are allowed under the law if they are transgressed upon?
Are there certain groups in contemporary Ukraine which have more rights than others? or do certain groups have more rights enshrined in legal instruments because they are always at the bottom of the list when it comes to enforcing rights? This might mean the disabled for example.
In a time of war, what of international law such as jus cogens? It is surely no coincidence that 12 Ukrainian NGOs have recently agreed to work together regarding torture and the principle of non-refoulement, considering the issue too big for any one of them to deal with individually.
What also of the right to be wrong? Is the right to be wrong an individual right or a right that extends to those that govern us, or both, if some rights are perceived to be more important than others? Is it correct also to expect those that govern to be able to deal with such a gargantuan task of implementing rights by swamping it with demands together with all the other demands of governance? Should a responsible civil society and electorate recognize that demanding too much at once usually brings about poor results and an institutional inability to cope, and if so what are the right priorities?
Who decides, and who decides who decides?
If that is indeed so, despite the government having an obligation to insure adherence to all manner of rights enumerated in international treaties to which it is a legal signatory, as well as those which are recognized in preemptory law, can civil society alone shoulder the remaining burden of defending rights? And if the value individualism is to replace collectivism at the center of Ukrainian political, economic and social life, without a nationwide education campaign relating to what rights exist and where they come from, can the national constituency be expected to assist in their defense?
If individual rights are to be at the core of the Ukrainian State, is it not incumbent upon each Ukrainian to be aware of their rights in order to defend them? Do they need to be spoon-fed rights awareness? If so, how should one do it effectively? Should it be done on a national scale, and in a way that would reach the vast majority of constituents? Or should it be done in some sort of piecemeal fashion? How would one teach the population about it’s rights? Clearly civil society workshops and roundtables, pdf downloads, and handouts at Metro stations would not have the adequate reach. A nation can be neither created nor educated by PowerPoint.
Any campaign to create national ideas will always require government, civil society and active media promotion if the impact is to be real and implementable. Is it possible to transition from the Soviet legacy of collective State centered rights to an individual rights regime without first identifying and reconciling with past human wrongs? At what point would all this progress be irreversible and safely consolidated within the psychology of the nation? Will Ukraine ever manage to reach a critical mass of reforms that would happily deprive it’s future historians and politicians of the opportunity to make statements akin to that of Viktor Chernomyrdin?
Nick Holmov is The Odessa Review’s political columnist. He is a writer, and consultant specializing in Ukrainian politics, civil society, local governance and security affairs. He is the founder of the widely read Odessatalk blog.