Assault on Ukraine’s democracy has plenty to teach America

Just because our democracy will be 250 years old later in this decade does not mean that we can take it for granted.

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The American and Ukrainian flags at a demonstration in Chicago against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The American and Ukrainian flags at a demonstration in Chicago against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Scott Olson/Getty

My intent was to write a commentary talking about how my experiences in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus had persuaded me long ago that Vladimir Putin would someday try to rebuild the Soviet Empire. 

Certainly, serving as White House advance lead for President Bill Clinton’s visits to Minsk in January of 1994, Kyiv in May of 1995 and Moscow in September of 1998 provided me with a fascinating first-hand learning experience about the history, people, politics, hopes and aspirations in that complicated region.

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I intended to go into detail about the extent to which the Moscow-aligned Supreme Soviet in Belarus tried to pressure President Clinton into not visiting Kuropaty, the forest on the outskirts of Minsk, where Joseph Stalin’s henchmen assassinated and buried 40,000 victims of his ruthless purges. 

Notwithstanding countless pressure tactics and a last-minute false flag attempt, Clinton went, placed a wreath and dedicated a stone bench anchored in concrete to honor the victims. Not long after we departed, the reform-minded interim leader of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, was deposed. A few months later Alexander Lukashenko was “elected” president and has been in charge ever since.

I have not subsequently been back to Belarus, but I suspect that the bench we dedicated at Kuropaty is no longer there. 

But it was our visit the following year to Kyiv, the capital of the then-blossoming Ukrainian democracy, that made me rethink my initial travelogue approach. My eldest daughter, Aimee, was part of our White House advance team, handling press logistics. During that visit, President Clinton paid his respects at Babi Yar, the ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv where the Nazis assassinated 100,000 people, a substantial percentage of whom were Jewish.

President Clinton also spoke to a crowd of thousands of enthusiastic, hopeful Ukrainians at an outdoor event on the campus of Shevchenko State University in Kyiv, where he was introduced by a university student and concluded his remarks by declaring “Slava Ukrainiy” — “Glory to Ukraine.”

Indeed, Russia itself is at a vital crossroads. The Moscow I first visited in 1994 on my way to Minsk was just starting to emerge from the Iron Curtain as the nation had transitioned from Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin. Moscow back then still felt sleepy, drab and uncertain as the population was still trying to feel its way in this new era of post-Communist independence. 

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When I returned to Moscow in the fall of 1998 to advance the Clinton’s visit, it was vibrant, bustling, energetic, welcoming. But, will it remain so after more than two decades under Putin’s iron grip?

And so I believe it’s important to focus on the vital lessons that can be learned from these visits in the nineties:

  • There is no “side of the angels” when it comes to ruthless tyrants who choose assassination and crushing repression instead of freedom and democracy.  Thugs are just that — thugs.
  • Democracy and freedom are not guaranteed, nor are they “a gift.” Both require sustained commitment and hard work, on a daily basis and over time. Just because our American democracy will be 250 years old later in this decade does not mean that we can take it for granted.
  • Watching the heroic Ukrainian people risk their lives for their democracy should be a wakeup call for Americans — coast to coast, urban and rural, Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives of all stripes — that our democracy remains fragile and requires productive collaboration and civility rather than destructive polarization, dog whistles and violence. 

The question is, rather than just watching this assault on democracy and freedom from afar, can we learn from it? 

To honor the heroic Ukrainians and our own uncertain future, I pray that the answer is yes.

Rick Jasculca is chairman of a Chicago-based public affairs firm. 

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