The liberal hawks and neoconservatives—practically the whole of the commentariat, it seems—have joined with western governments in a common view of the Ukraine crisis. They consider it as an instance plain and simple of Russian aggression, entailing massively illegal steps that cannot be countenanced. They say it must be met by the application of counter-pressures along a whole series of shifting points. They act and write as if the United States has done nothing wrong, that on the contrary we should be proud of the role we played in supporting a revolution that brought about the fall of a hated tyrant and the installation of a new democratic regime.
The big problem with this narrative is that the United States and its western and Ukrainian allies did in fact do something very wrong. They broke a vital democratic norm—to wit, that in democracies the transfer of power occurs as a result and in the aftermath of elections or, in extremis, impeachments. There is simply no consciousness in the West that the revolution was brought about by illegal means. Yet it most emphatically was so. Power was seized, not transferred. In this tit for tat contest with Russia, we have focused exclusively on the tit; we have just as resolutely ignored the tat that preceded it.
The commitment to the peaceful transfer of power in elections is basic to the democratic creed. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson summarized that commitment as follows: “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism.”
The United States government apparently believes that we can set that principle aside without consequence. According to Victoria Nuland, the United States has invested $5 billion over the last two decades in building knowledge of democratic institutions “and other goals.” It is now very clear that that the US left out of their instructional materials that little point about the transfer of power in elections.
Americans have previously acknowledged a right of revolution in a circumstance where there has been no previous instance of an election and no possibility of one. But in a regime that has a constitution and that has prescribed rules for the transfer of power? Revolution in those circumstances has been generally seen as deeply illegitimate, and for the simple reason that once you depart from that rule you are in no man’s land.
And yet the United States government, along with other western powers, did so abet and orchestrate the downfall of the president, Viktor Yanukovych. He won a 2010 election that the OSCE judged more free and fair than the 2012 vote that elected the current Ukrainian parliament. Even the mob-dominated vote by the Rada to impeach Yanukovych fell short of the required 3/4ths supermajority . They needed 338 votes in the 450-seat parliament and only got 328. Oops, ten votes shy. Not a big deal.
According to Radio Free Europe, there is also a constitutional provision mandating a review of the case by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court. It does not say who is to bring the case, or whether that procedure was observed. Without knowing much about the technicalities we can certainly affirm on the basis of common experience that impeachments, properly conducted, take time. But there was no time for such laborious proceedings in Ukraine. Given the failure to observe this elementary judicial procedure, the conclusion is unavoidable that the vote in the Rada would have been illegitimate even if it had passed—which, as we have seen, it did not.
These facts seem rather disconcerting. It was as if, when Clinton did that thing with the intern that we heard about on the radio, the Republicans had bypassed all that messy impeachment stuff in the House and instead bussed in the Moral Majority by the millions to DC, finally taking the White House after three months of courageous demonstrations where they braved the cold and sang songs about their country. And none of the foreign press, in depicting these stirring events, thought that the archaic impeachment procedure in the Constitution was particularly significant. Most, it appeared, didn’t know it existed, and they certainly didn’t report that it had been violated. Then some savvy Foreign Office weighed in with the observation that “ the democratic transition that occurred in America was an expression of the will of the American people .” Case closed.
Impeachment, of course, was never really in the cards in the Ukraine winter; it was the electoral calendar that was most important. Maidan had to endure little more than a year before the constitutionally mandated presidential elections on February 26, 2015, and would not do so. The mob rejected an even better deal, with Yanukovych staying until December 2014 with diminished powers, on the night of the revolution. The “reign of witches” they so greatly detested had to be ended immediately.
Remembering Jefferson and how he had endured the Federalist tyranny of the Alien and Sedition Laws in 1798 and 1799 (whence cometh that “reign of witches” phrase) got me to thinking of what we value in a democratic politics. We seniors (the 60-plus set) have had too many hopes busted to accept the fairytale version whereby a basically good people elects basically good leaders, all round the world. Experience teaches, rather, that the grandest thing in democratic politics is the forbearance of voters under an obnoxious and detestable ruler. There is something admirable in patiently waiting a prescribed limit to throw the bastards out. What is even better is the willingness of the self-same bastards to depart in peace (as Yanukovych once did previously). It is all done according to rules.
The absolute refusal to resort to violence, even under the provocation of a ruler we have come to hate, is a commendable thing. It is much better for any polity than irregular seizures attended by violence, such as have in the instant case been ignominiously branded as entirely democratic by the State Department.
Why do we Americans thrill to presidential elections and the solemn inaugurals that follow? The noble majesty of those sacred occasions is all about the peaceful transfer of power. The most important habit of a democratic politics—waiting your turn according to the electoral calendar—is the one we encouraged the Ukrainians to break.
Ukraine is not America, but democratic norms do travel across borders. This particular norm, which Americans once particularly treasured, was traduced and violated by the manner in which Yanukovych went down. 1
The violation of this core principle in Ukraine reflects a colossal misjudgment. The illegal action made possible something that could never have been the product of a peaceful electoral victory. Occupying the new government are members of Ukraine’s far right, who have taken on a very handsome portfolio centered on the coercive power of the state: defense ministry, prosecutor, national-security council.
The Western reporters and commentators who have deigned to take notice of this development have been minimizing the significance of the Svoboda Party and Right Sector in the government. They are mistaken. The sequence of events that brought these elements to a powerful position is the very definition of a devil’s bargain, one which the civil-society contingent in both Ukraine and America will live to regret.