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Stephen Gottlieb: Tears For Ukrainian Democracy

Let’s return to Ukraine once more.

Americans cheered at former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster. Here’s why that was a mistake.

When Yanukovych decided not to sign the pact with the EU, Ukrainians had several options. Two constitutional processes were available. They could have tried to impeach him. Or they could have defeated him at the polls. Yanukovych was elected for a five year term in 2010. Elections were scheduled for March 2015. They could have waited the extra year. Those were democratic ways to deal with disappointment with him.

Instead, Ukrainians who wanted to join the EU took to the streets. They had every right to demonstrate. Demonstrations are the democratic form of protest. But the crowds wanted more – not just to make their views known and felt, they wanted to settle the matter before and outside of elections. In an election they would have had to allow people they disagreed with to vote. That of course would have given legitimacy to the result. It might also have meant some compromise. Sharing the ballot and compromise are essential in democracy, though there are plenty who don’t get that point even here.

Anyway the western Ukrainians had their way. They got rid of President Yanukovych and put in place an unelected caretaker government with no particular legitimacy. Then, to compound the errors, though the acting president vetoed it, the legislature promptly passed a language law that demeaned and frightened Russian speakers. So the Russian-favoring Ukrainians took to the streets with their own demands. What was sauce for the western Ukrainians was also sauce for the eastern Ukrainians.

Americans should not be cheering for “our” side. American Administrations have unseated democratically elected governments before, and it hasn’t worked well. The most famous, and most disastrous for America, was unseating the democratically selected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran in 1953. Most Americans don’t know or remember it, but the Dulles brothers, who ran our foreign policy in the Eisenhower Administration, took credit for it. Every Iranian knows and remembers that we replaced Mosaddegh with the Shah of Iran. For an autocrat, he was relatively enlightened but, also like other dictators, after being shot at several times, he became quite repressive. Eventually many parts of Iranian society came together in support of his ouster and President Carter allowed him to come to the U.S. for cancer treatment. The seizure of the embassy was a direct consequence of the ouster of Mosaddegh because Iranians remembered that U.S. Embassy officials engineered the coup. Iranians seized the Embassy and the hostages in 1979 to prevent any repetition. Plainly that seizure quickly got out of hand but that’s the point – all of those decisions stemmed from the 1953 ouster and that sequence of events still poisons our relations with Iran and much of the Muslim world many decades later.

Democracy is a fragile flower. We should not be applying herbicides to democracy even when people elect leaders we disagree with. Whom others elect is their business. Blowback from interference with the democratic process is treacherous and very long-lasting. In Ukraine, disrespect for the democratic process has damaged an ally and divided their country.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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