Democracy & Human Rights

Monument of Pylyp Orlyk

Monument of Pylyp Orlyk

Ukraine has a long and deep democratic history. In 1710 Hetman Pylyp Orlyk, a Cossack of Ukraine, prepared a constitutional document for Ukraine establishing a democratic standard for the separation of powers in government between the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches, well before the publication of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, or obviously the United States Constitution. The Orlyk Constitution limited the executive authority of the hetman, and established a democratically elected Cossack parliament called the General Council. Pylyp Orlyk’s Constitution was unique for its historic period, and was one of the first state constitutions in Europe.
Indeed, in one of its early efforts the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation established the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy in Kyiv which aims to assist in the consolidation of a free-market democracy in Ukraine and, in part, to underscore the reality that Ukraine has its own historic democratic roots upon which to build. (
In addition, between 1917 and 1920, several entities aspiring to be independent Ukrainian states came into existence. This period, however, was extremely chaotic, characterized by revolution, international and civil war, and lack of strong central authority. Many factions competed for power in the area that is today’s Ukraine, and not all groups desired a separate Ukrainian state. Eventually the Ukrainian War of Independence produced the Free Territory of Ukraine.  And, although Ukrainian independence was short-lived during that period of independence Ukraine’s democratic instincts were evident and inclusive.

Then in 1989 the Popular Movement of Ukraine, or Rukh, was founded.  The people of Ukraine’s innate democratic instincts were evident in Rukh from the beginning.  Its Grand Council included representation of every ethnic group found in Ukraine and included within those ethnic groups survivors of the Soviet Gulags and members of the Communist Party.  During the years leading to independence Rukh was a movement, not as later, a political party and from its charter to its activities its inclusive democratic instincts were evident and controlling. For instance the two dominant leaders of Rukh, Ivan Drach, the Chairman, a Communist leader in the Writer’s Union, and Mykhailo Horyn, Vice Chairman and survivor of years of incarceration in the Gulag never reference “Ukrainians” or “the Ukrainian people” they always purposely talked of the “people of Ukraine.”
At first Rukh was not focused on independence but on essential human rights for all the people of Ukraine.
But starting in March of 1990, Ukraine allowed contested elections for the VR.  International observers verified that the election met the standards for a fair election. And, a significant number of members of Rukh were elected, and those Rukh members who were Communists at the time of election disavowed the Party affiliation.  Then a little over a year later the Rada adopted Ukraine’s Declaration of Sovereignty, followed in August, 1991, with the Declaration of Independence. But, uniquely Ukraine democratically conditioned its independence upon the approval of the people of Ukraine in a referendum. That referendum was held on December 1, 1991, and with over 80% of eligible voters voting the Declaration of Independence passed with a 93% majority and significant majorities in every oblast across Ukraine.
Then, as later elections took place international observers again graded Ukraine’s elections to meet international standards with one exception.  That was the presidential election of 2004 and it led to the massive Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv with the people of Ukraine demanding a re-vote and the people got what they demanded.  In the re-vote in December, 2004, the result of the earlier election was reversed during a recognized fair election.
Ukraine’s dynamic civil society again demanded democratic standards and human rights in what evolved into the 2013 Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity. 
Ukraine has a strong record of free and fair elections and the dedication of key reformers in politics, Ukraine continues to make significant progress in fulfilling its European aspirations.  Opinion polls indicate that Ukrainians are committed to democratic governance, respect for human rights and the battling of corruption. They have been particularly energized by the empowering changes that are happening at the local level as decentralization and citizen activism are forcing municipal governments to be more responsive to the needs of the citizenry.
The United States and other allies of Ukraine must continue to support Ukrainian civil society’s efforts aimed at building a robust democracy with strong institutions, parties, news media and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) – all part of a healthy, vibrant democracy unbeholden to oligarchs, corruption and Russian interference.  As Ukraine transitions to a true European future, U.S. foreign assistance programs in support of democracy, rule of law, civil society, media development and educational exchanges must be maintained in order to help reformers, accelerate implementation of reforms and make positive changes irreversible.  The goal should be to improve the lives of the people of Ukraine so that they feel the benefits of their choice to be part of the democratic West.
A successful, democratic and prosperous Ukraine continues to be a key national interest of the United States of America.  If Ukraine succeeds, there is hope that neighboring countries like Georgia and Moldova will also be able to consolidate their democratic gains.  If Ukraine succeeds, activists in Belarus, Russia and other countries in the region will be inspired in their struggle for a more democratic future.   Moscow’s belligerence in the region could be curtailed. 

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