The power in Ukraine that keeps Russia at bay

Lawmakers in Kiev worried less about further Russian attacks than the president’s call for far-reaching martial law and its potential erosion of democratic norms and ideals.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks Nov. 26 in Kiev during a parliament session to review his proposal to introduce martial law after Russia seized Ukrainian naval ships off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea.

After Russia openly used armed force against an independent Ukraine for the first time on Nov. 25 – seizing three Navy vessels in the Sea of Azov – one might think Ukrainians would direct their strongest ire at President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Not so.

While the Russian attack and detention of Ukrainian security forces clearly break international norms, the widespread concern among Ukrainians was whether their own president, Petro Poroshenko, would exploit the incident to cancel the 2019 presidential election. He is highly unpopular and might lose the vote.

So when Mr. Poroshenko asked Parliament on Nov. 26 for far-reaching powers under martial law, he got plenty of push-back. Instead of circling the wagons against Russia, lawmakers rushed to defend their democracy.

In the end, martial law was granted only in selected regions bordering on Russia and only for 30 days. Poroshenko was forced to assert that constitutional freedoms would not be limited and that daily life, such as banking, would not be disrupted. And yes, the election would proceed.

To make sure, Parliament voted to hold the election on March 31. Cancellation of the election, wrote Populist Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko on Facebook, would provoke street protests. “All of this may push Ukraine into chaos and anarchy, which will mean Moscow’s victory,” he said.

For would-be autocrats in other democracies, take note.

Ukraine, with its vibrant civil society, free media, and feisty legislators, stood up against an overreach for power and a potential erosion of civic norms. That’s because the country’s “soft armor” of democratic ideals is as important in preventing further Russian intrusion as are the country’s military forces. It is also one reason Western leaders backed Ukraine in the tense standoff. 

As the European Union tries to correct the budding autocrats among its member states, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, it should note the Ukraine legislature’s robust defense of democratic institutions. Martial law may be extended in Ukraine if Russia causes further trouble. But for all its faltering efforts to rebuild democracy and battle corruption, Ukraine’s hope of joining the EU just took a step forward.

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