A massive pro-EU rally in Kiev on November 24, 2013, attended by over 100,000 people. Photo by Ivan Bandura/Flickr

Lessons from Ukraine

Why democracy should not be taken for granted

Ukraine is in crisis mode! The high stakes chess game keeps evolving, even as world powers offer rhetoric and ideologies from the sidelines. With the possible exception of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, no one seems to have a clue how to resolve things.

Although we don’t have good solutions, Canadians should be taking notes. Here are some non-partisan lessons about democracy:

Be careful what you wish for. Multitudes bravely demonstrated on the streets of Kiev and cheered when President Yanukovych finally fled the country. But they cannot have imagined that in a few short weeks Russia would annex the Crimea, with ominous signs of more to come. Saying “enough is enough” is rarely enough; there must be a longer-term vision. In a democracy people need to make a personal commitment to be peacemakers.

A corruption-riddled government is just the tip of the iceberg. Corruption usually starts with a slow and not-so-obvious slide. When truth becomes a relative term, and padding our individual bank accounts becomes more important than integrity, we become part of the problem. We get the leaders we deserve.

Immense wealth in the hands of a few is a dangerous thing. According to a recent study, the wealth of Canada’s richest 86 families equals that of the poorest 11.4 million Canadians combined. Wealth of this magnitude brings political power and can easily become a threat to Canada’s democratic society.

Government can’t save us. Subsidized natural gas prices are an example of what’s important to the average Ukrainian. But we can all be lulled into taking a short-term view of our own well-being. To be re-elected, our politicians will bend over backwards to oblige—and try to convince us that the money is somehow coming from someone other than us. For our democracy to survive, Canadians need to take a long-term view, including the tax dollars we pay.

What unites is more important than what divides. Like Ukraine, Canada is rich in resources and has a diversity of people. And like Ukraine, we are not immune to things that could divide us. The recent Quebec election had the potential to divide the country. Is the loss of the Parti Quebecois a victory for the rest of Canada—or an opportunity to find common ground with its supporters?

Good government requires good people. That politicians are often tempted to look out for themselves and their friends and family is not limited to Ukraine. For a democracy to endure, good people must be willing to serve. This won’t happen when voters reward the wrong type of leadership.  There is a reason why the Bible tells us to pray for our governments.

The rule of law must be respected. In a true democracy, minorities are not held hostage by the majority. That the new Ukraine government immediately made Ukrainian the only official language left a significant minority feeling vulnerable, adding to the instability. When changes to the law cannot be made in an orderly manner, democracy will invariably be at risk.

Democracy doesn’t just happen. It requires hard work, cooperation, sacrifice and a lot of give and take. And it is never an overnight success. What we do today will bless—or curse—many generations to come.

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About the author

Henry Friesen is a chartered accountant who lives in a small town near Winnipeg, Manitoba.