KYIV – From snowy Kyiv, I have watched the successful revolutions in Cairo and Tunis with joy and admiration. Egyptians and Tunisians are right to be proud of their desire to peacefully overthrow despotic governments. But, as someone who led a peaceful revolution, I hope that pride is tempered by pragmatism, because a change of regime is only the first step in establishing a democracy backed by the rule of law. Indeed, as my country, Ukraine, is now demonstrating, after revolutionary euphoria fades and normality returns, democratic revolutions can be betrayed and reversed.
The first of Ukraine’s lessons for Egyptian and Tunisian democrats is that elections do not a democracy make. After all, what if the enemies of freedom use elections to entrench their anti-democratic agendas? What if elements of the old regime, or the cadres of militant minorities, only pretend to embrace democratic norms in order to hijack the new democracy?
In Ukraine today, these are not abstract questions. Six years after our Orange Revolution, not only is my country’s democracy under threat, but the rule of law is being systematically perverted and our national independence bartered away. Indeed, the hybrid presidential/parliamentary system that Ukraine established as part of the settlement which brought a peaceful end to our revolution is being hollowed out in order to concentrate all political power in the hands of a supposedly democratically elected president.
Of course, Ukraine’s plight does not mean that the people of Egypt and Tunisia should spurn the call for free elections. Determining the will of the people does require expression through the ballot box. But elections alone cannot solve the fundamental political problems confronting Egypt and Tunisia. In particular, they cannot create a liberal order and open society.