One Year Since the Invasion of Ukraine, Let Citizens Lead

Essay by Ieva Česnulaitytė: “One year ago, Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, suddenly throwing into jeopardy decades toward democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. But as Ukraine fought back, its neighbours have rallied to its defence. 

The war still rages and it is easy to feel despair. But as a Lithuanian democracy expert, I feel confident that our region’s future is bright. It is possible, if we take the right steps, for Ukraine and its neighbours to emerge as more resilient democracies than before.

First, we must recognise the extraordinary outpouring of support for Ukraine from everyday people. Polls show that as of January 2023, two out of three Lithuanians had donated to the Ukrainian defense effort. People in the region welcomed millions of fleeing civilians, crowd-funded millions of euros, and mobilised to penetrate the propaganda wall by sending text messages to Russian citizens.

This is remarkable because, paradoxically, these same countries have abysmal voter turnout and low levels of trust in government. People are still learning to trust one another, to hold their governments accountable, and to embrace their own agency. Thirty years of democratisation has yielded varying levels of success. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania score at the top 20 per cent on V-DEM’S Liberal Democracy Index, while Bulgaria and Moldova are still classified as electoral autocracies. 

It turns out that a transition to party politics and elections is fairly easy to undermine through corruption and foreign influence. This has led to “hybrid regimes,” with democratic and nondemocratic features. 

At the same time, the region has undergone a paradigm shift from communist regimes, successfully implementing reforms and building democratic institutions. Grounded in values of liberty and self determination, there is a palpable openness to innovate and ambition to make up for the years lost under Soviet oppression.

How can we tap into our innate capacity to collaborate and care for others—so apparent over the past year—to build resilience and accelerate our democratic renaissance? When the war ends, how can we help Ukraine do the same?..(More)”.