Terrorism vs. democracy

18 07 2022

To someone unaware of the details, describing the war in Ukraine as a struggle between terrorism and democracy may sound caricaturish. (The same might be the case for scholars, who prefer nuances.) But war, for all the state power machinations that may direct it, takes place in its details — the specific experiences had and the lives disrupted.

Two recent Atlantic articles, one by long-time correspondent Anne Applebaum, the other by co-founder of Ukraine’s Public Interest Journalism Lab Nataliya Gumenyuk, lay out the stakes of this dichotomy.

In “Russia’s War Against Ukraine Has Turned Into Terrorism,” Applebaum defines terrorism as “an intimidation campaign using violence,” and delineates the kinds of goals it seeks to achieve.

One of them may be to persuade people to leave, to become refugees, to become a burden and perhaps a political problem for Ukraine’s neighbors. Clearly the bombs are also meant to impoverish Ukrainians, to prevent them from rebuilding, to weaken their state, to persuade their compatriots who are abroad not to come home. Who wants to return to a country that features on the evening news every few nights, as another bomb falls on another apartment building or shopping mall? Who will invest in a place of smashed rooftops and broken glass? Sowing such doubts is a classic goal of terrorism too.

Russia’s deliberate attacks on civilians, such as the repeated use of cluster munitions in Kharkiv, Applebaum argues, are a form of state terrorism. As she says, “Random attacks on random places, far from the front lines and with no military significance whatsoever, are now a daily occurrence in Ukraine.” 

But there’s another element in this, which Gumenyuk gets at much more clearly. As her interviewee Pavlo Kushtym puts it,

“Ukraine’s democracy is still developing, but we as a society are dangerous for Putin,” Pavlo continued. “We are a ‘bad example’ for Russians—we are showing that, even in this part of the world, people can influence decisions. So he wants to erase us.”

This is one among many snippets from Gumenyuk’s travels across the country that help make her case that, as the title puts it, “Russia’s Invasion is Making Ukraine More Democratic.” It appears to be doing this at multiple levels, especially the local, where decentralization processes have been ongoing since soon after the war began in 2014.

Russia’s leaders, in common with other autocrats, call democracy “chaotic,” but this decentralization of power has strengthened Ukraine, empowering people to take action and substitute for one another in cases of emergency.

Ukrainians, she argues, are making democracy theirs: “Theoretical concepts such as the rule of law, human rights, and electoral accountability,” she writes, “are being exercised on the ground, with people’s lives at risk.”

It’s too early to know to what extent the invasion itself is strengthening democracy across the country — which would be surprising as far as wars tend to go — but her examples range widely and echo what other observers have been seeing. See, for instance, Brik and Murtazashvili, “The Source of Ukraine’s Resilience,” Foreign Affairs, June 28, 2022; Sabadash and Kruglashov, “Decentralisation Processes in Ukraine,” Public Policy and Administration 21.1; Joe Mathews, “Can Ukraine’s Experiments in Local Democracy Survive the Invasion?Zócalo: Public Square, March 2, 2022; and the ICLD’s recent “Democracy and Security in Ukraine” panel.



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