Once the war is over, and Ukraine has restored its territorial integrity, the country will be focused on reconstruction and getting back to normal life. This will mean returning to full democracy, with clear and protected free speech and political competition.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion began on February 24, 2022, Ukraine has been under a state of martial law. The Constitution explicitly forbids holding elections or attempting constitutional changes while this remains in force. Until complete victory is secured, all our efforts must be put into defeating the invaders. However, there is increasing concern that aspects of our democracy are under threat.
The war and occupation of parts of Ukraine have had a destructive effect on the country’s political infrastructure, and our ability to conduct the business of democracy has been undermined. Our people are scattered (more than 6.3 million have fled to other European countries and 5 million more are internally displaced), our institutions are strained and our democracy is under attack from a neighbor determined to destroy it.
Others have been less lucky. One million Ukrainians have been kidnapped and deported to Russia, while around 9,000 civilians have been murdered in blatant acts of ethnic cleansing and Russification (this number is an extremely low estimate given the 20,000 deaths in Mariupol alone), a plague that has ravaged Ukraine since the time of the Tsars.
These people are forever Ukrainian, regardless of their location, and are still at the core of our nation. Yet they cannot participate in the democratic processes set out in our constitution. A combined system of majoritarian and proportional democracy such as ours simply cannot function if a massive section of the population is unable to vote.
This has been caused by A range of issues stemming from the invasion. For example, the mechanisms for voting when abroad are simply not there, and most of our embassies do not have the capacity to deal with the Ukrainian diaspora. In Poland alone, there are 2.3 million Ukrainians, a number our embassy in Warsaw is unequipped to deal with.
Digital elections via Dia, an e-governance application developed by the Ministry of Digital Transformation, have been considered, but the constitution demands a secret ballot, which Dia can’t ensure. Another problem with Dia is that sections of the population are unable or unwilling to use it, due to issues with internet access or people, particularly the elderly, being unfamiliar with the system.
It is clear that Ukraine will be unprepared for an immediate return to democracy after the war has ended. We will therefore need a transition period to properly reestablish the necessary infrastructure.
But democracy is not just voting, it is the manifestation of the collective will of a population, most clearly expressed through the right to free speech. While we are at war we cannot forget that such a sacred institution may be used by rogue elements to damage the nation.
As a result, our constitution forbids any peaceful meetings, rallies, marches, and demonstrations while the country is under martial law. The war has not only chained the hands of democracy but silenced its voice.
The government fought against this deficit by launching United News, a program shown on several channels since the day of the full-scale invasion. It provides 24/7 access to information concerning the war but has led to questions over democratic representation. Servant of the People, the ruling party, takes up a disproportionate amount of airtime, and other parties have been sidelined. In the second quarter of 2023, out of 100 appearances in the marathon, 68 were made by Servant of the People compared to only four each by European Solidarity or the Holos party The ruling party thus appears to be using the primary source of news in Ukraine to further its political goals.
The Russian invasion has not only ravaged our country and our people through fear and flame, it has also damaged our ability to conduct democracy and debate. This war is stealing the people’s voice and their ability to participate in democracy by scattering, imprisoning, and murdering them.
We must drive back the enemy for a full return to democracy and progress. The war for our country and the war for our democracy are one and the same.
I understand there are issues around balancing security and freedom, as well as the difficulty of fighting a war and conducting a fully democratic process at the same time, but the fact democracy has become difficult means we must fight all the harder to defend it.
There must now be a sustained effort to secure our democracy in the present to ensure we have it in the future.
Oleksii Goncharenko is Member of Parliament for Odesa and represents the European Solidarity group.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.