Ukrainian soldiers talk about Democracy

21 June

As part of this years Open Chair Democracy Talks Spring Campaing, Ukrainian Youth Fellow Victoria Portnaya talked with some of the soldiers fighting for the freedom of their country. She tells the story of the difficulty of getting soldiers to talk about democracy, citizenship and what comes after the war – and reflects upon the great importance of doing so.

A majority of us – but by no means all – are accustomed to thinking about democracy in times of peace. However, what occurs when one confronts the realities of a large-scale war? Particularly when this war is partially directed against your own country’s democratic progress and aspirations towards Western values and principles? And when your current occupation involves taking lives in order to protect your home and family?

I embarked on a quest to seek answers to these profoundly challenging questions. On one hand, it seemed straightforward because I reside in the Sumy region, located in the northeastern part of Ukraine, where even in my small town, one can encounter hundreds of soldiers. On the other hand, only a few soldiers were willing to engage in discussions about “political issues” with me and my cousin. They feared crossing boundaries and facing retribution from their superiors. This fear was intensified by a pervasive sense of surveillance and control over their actions and words. Ultimately, they were uncertain about the true identities of the individuals they interacted with, which reflected the low levels of social trust we had to overcome.

Nevertheless, we knew that soldiers often frequented local cafes, allowing us to “catch” them and request assistance as two young “students” conducting research “for Sweden.” Within two days, we managed to have conversations with six soldiers, mainly through the assistance of our acquaintances who persuaded their soldier relatives to participate in the discussions.

So, what do these soldiers think about democracy?

First and foremost, Ukrainian soldiers, like civilians in Ukraine and various other European countries, associate democracy with similar ideals: the empowerment of people, the protection of rights and the rule of law, and the preservation of freedoms. Half of the soldiers feel a sense of freedom (to the extent that it becomes unsettling), while the other half does not. Many of them do not perceive themselves as empowered citizens, although one soldier attributes his military service as a form of political power. Regarding change, the soldiers emphasize the need to overcome the lingering legacy of the USSR (“Homo Soveticus”), treating individuals as human beings with inherent rights and freedom even during times of war, and increasing citizen participation in the exercise of democratic political power. As is often the case, some participants are uncertain about what changes are needed and how to bring them about. In response to a specific question about the redistribution of political power and social resources after the war, most soldiers agree that those who suffered the most during the conflict should receive a greater share of public goods. Notwithstanding, they are less inclined to extend this principle of distribution to political power, as they perceive it as a form of social discrimination.

Overall, the soldiers’ responses and the entire process of our discussions with the soldiers are heartening and encouraging. The soldiers demonstrate an awareness of the essence of democracy, belief in its principles, and an understanding that citizens should be politically active and that their rights should not be disregarded even in times of war. However, it is important to acknowledge that alongside the impact of war on social and political behavior (including the constant search for enemies, feelings of superiority, and aggression), the soldiers’ demand for a new post-war system that benefit them may have adverse effects on Ukraine’s democratic development. To address this, a majority of citizens must become politically active and informed individuals, and democratic institutions should be monitored and supported by international actors and local NGOs. This will help prevent the consolidation of democracy from faltering even in the challenging post-war conditions.

Read the answers of the soldiers here.

Victoria Portnaya

Youth Fellow