Both the United States and Europe have again cranked up financial sanctions on Kremlin leaders and cronies for escalating the crisis in Ukraine. Russia keeps amassing troops along the border and, by most accounts, backs rebellions in many cities. Yet amid the thrust and parry of this big-power struggle, it is too easy to overlook the quiet democratic revolution still under way among common Ukrainians.
Day by day since the Kiev protests ousted a corrupt president this past February, hundreds of civil rights activists have worked with Ukraine’s parliament to enact new reforms. They have won new laws for an independent judiciary and against government control of media. They demand that candidates for the May 25 presidential election promise to end the corrupt influence of powerful oligarchs. And they seek to move up the elections for parliament from 2017 to this fall in order to establish a fresh legislative mandate for reform.
Such grass-roots actions, which reflect what most Ukrainians tell pollsters, do not command the headlines as much as the armed standoffs in Ukraine’s east. Yet they are the essential demonstrations of a desire for basic liberties that the West expects in order to keep providing support.
During his visit to Kiev last week, US Vice President Joe Biden delivered that key message. The US has learned in places like Iraq and Afghanistan that it can only help people achieve democracy if they work for it themselves.
Ukraine’s civil society groups are working double time because they suspect Russia’s real intention is to disrupt the May 25 elections and deny legitimacy to a new government in Kiev. A clean election would help cement Ukraine’s identity as an independent state outside Moscow’s orbit of control.
The civic ideals steadily being embedded in Ukrainian laws and practices are a powerful answer to the display of guns by the Russian Army and to the armed, pro-Russia separatists who have taken over public buildings in the east. And despite Ukraine’s divisions over language, the reforms represent the greatest source of unity for a people who seek stability after months of conflict.
The more that Kiev’s leaders operate a clean and reformist government, the easier it will be for Ukraine’s military to peacefully end the separatist threat. A poll in April in the city of Donetsk, scene of one of the rebellions, found 72 percent of residents to not support the “actions of those who seize administrative buildings in your region with weapons in hand.”
So far, Ukraine is passing the test of reform while struggling to get to the May 25 elections. This quiet revolution makes it easy for the people of Europe and the US to stand up to Moscow’s bullying. High ideals have all the power against the guns of those who seek to deny liberty.