Repentance is a powerful force for reform. A good test of this enduring idea can be seen in Ukraine over the coming weeks as the country tries to elect new leaders, stay unified, shore up its weak finances, and fend off Russian pressure.
Many of the protesters who forced President Viktor Yanukovych from office last week say they spent three months on the streets out of sheer regret. After the 2004 “Orange Revolution” ushered in a new democracy, they put too much faith in individual politicians. The people didn’t build up civic institutions or keep a check on corruption. They let Mr. Yanukovych accumulate power, which eventually allowed him to use violence against peaceful opponents.
Now the protesters – many of whom still remain on Kiev’s Independence Square – are in a repentant mood. They and their allies in parliament have struck a never-again attitude that will serve them well in dealing with Ukraine’s difficult challenges.
“We will not allow a repeat of what happened in 2004,” says Volodymyr Parasiuk, a prominent protest leader, told Reuters.
Foremost of those challenges is reconciliation with the country’s ethnic Russians, many of whom still back Yanukovych. It didn’t help that one of parliament’s first decisions after his ouster was to reduce the status of the Russian language. Opening up divisions among Ukrainians only tempts outside powers, such as Russia and Europe, to further compete over this strategic country.
Since 2004 and even before, Ukrainians have allowed the country to become a pawn in geopolitical rivalry, especially in submitting to threats and bribes by Russia. Having now gone through two democratic revolutions within nine years, this country of 46 million people must fully claim its sovereignty and independence.
Ukraine is blessed with abundant resources, well-educated workers, and strong industries. Those strengths can be used to convince the European Union, the United States, and the International Monetary Fund to provide loans for its recovery.
The country needs an estimated $35 billion in foreign assistance over the next couple of years. To earn the confidence of lenders, Ukraine’s new leaders must show how well they have learned the lessons from the country’s post-2004 mistakes.
Contrition helped fuel the protests and may now help Ukrainians accept the tough conditions that will likely be imposed with the new loans. The government will be expected to reduce subsidies on energy, cut spending, and clamp down on corruption. Oligarchs must be reined in. Politics must not descend into endless bickering.
Ukraine is getting a second chance at reform. Thankfully, many of its emerging leaders know this. With newfound repentance, Ukraine can face the sacrifices needed to reform both its democracy and its economy. In doing so, it will have strong support from other countries.