Political Systems in Transformation: Cases of Ukraine and Georgia

Kostiantyn Fedorenko

Political Analyst at The Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation

The article was written within the project Ukraine – Out of the Crisis Through Dialogue, implemented by Caucasian House and Institute of World Policy (Ukraine).

The project is funded by the FCO/DFID/MOD Conflict Pool through the British Embassy in Ukraine.


2014 has marked a change of regime in Ukraine. The new Ukrainian government has proclaimed European integration to be their key goal. Having this in mind, they turned their heads towards Georgia – a post-Soviet country considered to be a “success story” in their progress after the pro-Western Rose Revolution of 2003. A number of Georgians were given positions in the Ukrainian governmental bodies.

However, experience is expected to be relevant in similar situations. Is today’s Ukraine comparable to Saakashvili’s Georgia? And what stages of political transformation did the two countries go through up to this day? That is the main question to be addressed by this paper. To answer this question, we will go through recent political history of both countries, highlighting the main transformations that occurred in the process.

Early Phases

Ukraine has declared its independence in August 1990, while Georgia did so in April 1991. The overwhelming majority of Georgians voted for a nationalist dissident, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, during their first presidential elections, while Leonid Kravchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, took the office in Kiev. Less than 24% of Ukrainians voted for Vyacheslav Chornovil[1], who was also a dissident and remained leader of the national-democratic opposition until his death (allegedly organized by the ruling regime) in 1999. Chornovil also headed Rukh, a movement that organized mass protests in support of Ukrainian independence during late 80’s.

Both countries, however, had to pay a heavy toll for their choices. Georgia had to pay it with instability and blood spilt during civil conflicts. In Ukraine, Kravchuk kept the Soviet-style system of governance, with its excessive bureaucracy, social populism, and tendency to heavily interfere into the economy. Neither Kravchuk, nor his follower Kuchma were able to introduce radical reforms; in fact, only after Kuchma left the office did Ukraine acquire recognition as a country with a market economy. This shows that, unlike the successful post-Socialist countries, Ukraine failed to fulfill the Washington consensus policies. This applies to Georgia as well; despite entering WTO in 2000, it was still not recognized as a market ecocnomy[2].

It is worthwhile to note that none of the ex-Soviet Baltic states, or the post-Socialist states of the Warsaw pact, elected a President who was holding a high office before the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet camp. Instead, all of them were either open dissidents or members of the Communist party who had disagreements with the regime; unlike Kravchuk, no-one among them managed to make a successful career in the Communist party.

However, while having a first democratically elected President not from the Communist ruling elite seemed to be a required precondition for further effective pro-Western development of the country, this factor alone was not sufficient. First presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, for instance, were not representatives of the Communist system – yet, due to the regional turmoil, no functional and consolidated democracy was possible in these countries at the moment. This, as we will see, was also the case with Georgia.

The early phases of both Ukrainian and Georgian independence were short-lived: Kravchuk spent two and a half years as a President, while Gamsakhurdia enjoyed less than a year of rule. The reasons to end these phases were, however, different.

First Change of Power

Samuel Huntington once offered a “two-turnover” test for countries in transition: a democracy, he argued, was consolidated if two changes of ruling parties through elections occurred, and the loser accepts the results[3]. In framework of political systems where president plays a key role, this should probably apply to presidential elections. Ukraine, then, had its first turnover without excesses. Leonid Kuchma, ex-secretary of the Communist Party node at a factory, then its director, won early 1994 elections that were called as a result of compromise between Kravchuk and the parliament. Kuchma claimed victory by making use of the then-popular pro-Russian rhetoric, while the Communist Party triumphed at the parliamentary elections. Nationalists from the Ukrainian National Self-Defence (UNSO), who already participated as soldiers of fortune in regional wars, were an active political movement and might have potentially caused turmoil, yet reacted to this turnover passively.

Georgia faced a much more difficult process of altering the power. Human rights violations conducted under Gamsakhurdia deprived his regime of support from the West, while Russia initiated a coup d’état in December 1991. Eduard Shevardnadze, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, was appointed as head of state by the military, and parliamentary elections were called, with the Communist party banned and liberal parties winning the bulk of the seats. Most of these parties were short-lived.

Gamsakhurdia attempted to strike back in starting a civil war of 1993, yet his forces were defeated, while Gamsakhurdia himself committed suicide (some argue that he was killed). This conflict has heated the war in Abkhazia against local separatists – who were also supported by Russia. In other words, Russia wanted a relatively more cooperative regime in Tbilisi, supporting Shevardnadze against clearly anti-Russian Gamsakhurdia, but at the same time saw Abkhazia as an independent entity. This policy continued later, and certainly played an important role in the development of Georgia.

Conservative Regimes

Both regimes corresponded to the standards of an electoral democracy, according to Larry Diamond: they were “constitutional systems in which parliament and executive are the result of regular, competitive, multi-party elections with universal suffrage”[4]. However, considering their further fall after attempts to rig elections, as well as against pressure on the regime opponents (which implies violation of their freedom), they can hardly be called liberal democracies[5], but rather hybrid regimes. Morlino defines such a situation as “limited democracy”; Levitsky and Way use the term “competitive authoritarianism”, thus defining a regime where “competition is real but unfair”[6].

Neither Shevardnadze, nor Kuchma were interested in fundamental reforms. They both became the centers of power and attempted to deal with internal opposition. For instance, given how the case of Rukh leader Chornovil’s death was immediately closed, it seems plausible that Kuchma eliminated his main political opponent. Rukh had since ceased to exist as an important player.

As Acemoglu & Robinson point out, a country “ruled by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of the people”[7] cannot lead to welfare for the commons. This was characteristic for both states, where a class of businesspeople benefitting from their access to the state decision-making – oligarchs – was born. This was combined with pressure on other businesses in the country, as well as on the opposition. And while today the world views Yanukovych as a dictator, the roots of his dictatorship lie in the years of Kuchma’s rule.

Shevardnadze used his influence to drive pro-Russian Igor Giorgadze, one of his political competitors, out of Georgia in 1994; earlier that year, a nationalist politician Grigori Chanturia was murdered – allegedly by Shevardnadze’s orders. The major difference between the two countries was that Georgia still had to face the problem of Abkhazia, with an armed conflicts erupting there in 1998.

Social and Political Transformations

Early 2000’s were also the period when elites that would come into play later formed in both states. The next presidents of Georgia and Ukraine entered the government, with Mikheil Saakashvili serving as Minister of Justice in 2000-2001 and Victor Yuschenko becoming PM in 1999. Both of them were protégés of the ruling presidents; and both stood up against their political godfathers with time.

We also see some of the important modern parties forming in the two countries exactly at this time. In 2001, after resignation, Saakashvili openly criticized Shevardnadze and founded the United National Movement party. Next year, Yuschenko becomes the leader of Our Ukraine, a coalition that would oppose Kuchma’s rule.

Finally, 2001 was the year when mass protests under the “Ukraine Without Kuchma” motto were held. There were also attempts to force Shevardnadze to quit that year. Both these movements did not have a clear leader.

“Velvet” Revolutions

Popular protests of 2001 revealed the unsettlement of the civil society in Georgia and Ukraine with their respective regimes. This erupted into “velvet revolutions” of 2003 and 2004 respectively. They were mass protests, caused by the government-committed electoral fraud. There were no violent clashes with the police in both cases, and the regimes agreed to compromise with the revolutionary leaders. Shevarnadze resigned, and Saakashvili won the presidential elections. In Ukraine, the court ordered a third round of vote where Yuschenko triumphed. Both Kuchma and Shevarnadze were never persecuted for their actions as heads of states; this was clearly part of their agreements with the opposition, traded for non-violent transition of power. Karl and Schmitter call such a way of transition a “pact”, a compromise between the elites; they further argued that such a transition is likely to produce restricted democracy[8].

Both new presidents have initially enjoyed domestic and foreign support. However, their actions at the new positions differed. Saakashvili managed to perform large-scale reforms in his country. Politically, he did not maintain his liberal image, suppressing opposition rallies in 2007. Yet it is undeniable that he initiated massive changes in the country, and in 2008, he won already in the first round of elections. His party, the United National Movement, dominated in the 2004 and 2008 parliamentary elections. This shows that Saakashvili managed not lose the credit of trust for quite an extensive period of time. The main oppositioners were the conservative New Rights Party, with David Gamkrelidze at its head, and Levan Gachechalidze, who later became the main competitor to Saakashvili at the 2008 presidential elections and headed the opposition bloc the same year, as a co-founder.

Yuschenko’s presidency was quite different. In the end of 2004, as part of his trade-off with Kuchma, Yuschenko supported a constitution reform that was aimed at transferring most of the President’s competencies to the Prime Minister, starting 2006. With Yulia Tymoshenko becoming the PM in January 2005, a conflict for power between the two leaders of the Orange revolution erupted, causing public mistrust. In turn, this allowed the alliance led by the Party of Regions (headed by Yanukovych) and including the Communists to win the 2006 parliamentary elections. In early elections of 2007, Yuschenko’s “Our Ukraine” and Tymoshenko’s “Motherland” narrowly managed to reclaim power.

Regime Change

Further conflicts between Yuschenko and Tymoshenko gave the chance for Victor Yanukovych, who enjoyed wide support in the Russian-speaking regions of Southeastern Ukraine. Yanukovych made use of this situation and claimed victory against Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 elections. His rule was marked by repressions against the opposition; Tymoshenko herself was given a prison sentence. The Constitutional Court, under political pressure, reinstated the presidential republic. Yanukovych used his rule for enrichment of himself and his loyal oligarchs; he was leaning to Russia in foreign policy.

Georgia also saw a force that was relatively more cooperative with Russia coming to power. Allegations of large-scale corruption and state violence undermined the regime’s reputation. In the 2012 parliamentary elections – in light of country becoming a parliamentary republic starting 2013 – the “Georgian Dream” bloc, headed by a billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, had won the majority of seats. In particular, he stated that “we will try to restore friendly relations with our great neighbor, Russia”[9]; in mid-2013, the two countries successfully restored trade relations. At the same time, euroatlantic integration remains a strategic goal for Georgia.

In 2013, Giorgi Margvelashvili of “Georgian Dream” won the presidential elections, thus ending the rule of Saakashvili. Soon, a criminal charge was raised against the ex-President for use of force against protesters in 2007, causing him to flee the country. Criminal charges against Saakashvili himself and his supporters in Georgia caused certain concern of the EU.

Both countries underwent a procedurally democratic regime change. However, the authoritarian tendencies in Ukraine and pro-Russian foreign policy triggered mass protests in Kiev in late 2013, which escalated due to police violence. Moderate parties called for peaceful protest, while radicals were aiming at forced regime change. An umbrella right-wing organization, “Right Sector”, was created and actively participated in fights with the police. However, it never gained sufficient political support due to its radicalism.

After the regime change, Ukraine is once again a parliamentary republic. Pro-Russian parties are now rather marginalized, and there is concern over a degree of repression towards them and their media. However, some Ukrainians justify this with the special needs caused by annexation of Crimea and the Donbas conflict. A significant drop of turnout is observed in the Southeast[10], partially due to the lack of any credible pro-Russian party, and partially due to doubts over legitimacy of the current Ukrainian regime.

Ukraine 2014 vs. Georgia 2008

Russian media labeled the Kiev protesters “fascist”, framing the public opinion in the Southeast of Ukraine. With support of the Russian troops, an independence referendum was held by the Crimean parliament in March. The local population, repeatedly supporting pro-Russian parties in the previous Ukrainian elections, expressed enthusiasm about the perspective of joining Russia. The protest of Crimean Tartars and some Ukrainians on the peninsula remained a minority.

During spring, mass pro-Russian protests started across the whole Southeast. In most regions, they were tamed. Not in Donbas – the easternmost region of the country, historically supporting pro-Russian politicians as much as Crimea. Here, pro-Russian protesters attacked pro-Ukrainian activists with weapons; the police remained passive. Neither did the law-enforcement oppose pro-Russian protesters when they took control over the cities. Some analysts consider that mostly internal factors caused these events, while others stress the role of Russia. This brings a parallel with the 2008 conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as there are opinions that the Georgian policy caused the conflict.

In April 2014, Ukraine initiated an “anti-terrorist operation” in Donbas. The local protesters, together with Russian partisans, have started an armed insurgence, heavily backed by Russia. The Ukrainian civil society have mobilized itself for the conflict; almost a fourth of Ukrainians reported having participating in volunteer actions, mostly by donating money or ammunition for the military[11].

The Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 differed in certain key factors. First, Abkhazia was for a long time de facto uncontrollable by the Georgian government, with regular armed conflicts. Second, while Abkhazians also participated in the operation, Russia was not hiding its intervention. Third, that particular conflict was brief; therefore, it could not trigger particular civil society mobilization, unlike in the Ukrainian case.


Both countries went through five similar historical phases:

  • early development and quick transfer of power;
  • conservative and repressive regime, unsuccessful in economic reforms;
  • civil society and opposition buildup, mass protests;
  • velvet revolution;
  • regime change due to dissatisfaction; persecution of ex-leaders.

During phase 2, both countries were ruled by presidents that enjoyed successful Communist party careers. This brought upon relatively stable yet corrupt hybrid regimes, with strong state-business connections producing oligarchy. Promising pro-Western politicians that served for these regimes were eventually able to overthrow their leaders in velvet revolutions, yet had trouble changing the political systems; in Ukraine, no significant reforms were introduced. This fact can be attributed either to path dependency as a result of previous leader choices, or to the mode of regime change via a pact between elites that, according to Karl and Schmitter, tends to lead to restrictions in democracy.

Neither Georgia, nor Ukraine had two consecutive democratic regime changes required for a consolidated democracy. The current regimes in Georgia and Ukraine are also similar in that Europe voiced concerns over actions against their opponents. However, a parallel can also be drawn between cases opened against Tymoshenko (under Yanukovych) and against Saakashvili.

However, five important domestic differences have to be stressed. First, Georgia always had a frozen conflict that periodically escalated. Second, the conservative regime of Shevarnadze was installed as a result of a coup, while Ukraine had a democratic transition of power to Kuchma. Third, the velvet revolution in Georgia brought effective reforms, unlike that in Ukraine. Fourth, the current regime in Georgia, while being more cooperative with Russia in economic matters than that of Saakashvili and while criminal cases are open against the former regime’s officials, is much softer as compared to the rule of Yanukovych in 2010-2014. Finally, what happened in Ukraine since 2013 lacks a Georgian analogue. The Donbas conflict, while reminding that in Georgia, 2008, is not an open war with Russia and is long-lasting, while causing higher popular mobilization.

Since the conservative, Soviet-style regime was never reformed in Ukraine, the country is politically in a similar situation to Georgia in 2003. However, due to the armed conflict and resulting economic crisis, implementing the reforms might be much more challenging.


[1] Andrusechko, Petro. Prezydents’ki vybory po-ukrainski [Presidential elections à la Ukraine]. Ukrainian Journal, vol.1, 2010. – P.29-31. – Last accessed: 12.02.2015.

[2] Isachenko, Tatiana. Osobyi podkhod Evrosoiuza k stranam s nerynochnoj ekonomikoj [EU’s special approach towards countries with non-market economies]. – Last accessed: 16.02.2015.

[3] Huntington, Samuel. The Third Wave: Democratization in Late Twentieth Century. – University of Oklakhoma Press, 1993.

[4] Diamond, Larry. Developing democracy: toward consolidation. – Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. – P.10.

[5] Morlino, Leonardo. Hybrid Regimes or Regimes in Transition? – FRIDE, 2008. –  Last accessed: 16.02.2015.

[6] Levitsky, Steven & Way, Lucan A. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War. – Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[7] Acemoglu, Daron & Robinson, James. Why Nations Fail. Crown Publishers, NY, 2012.

[8] Karl, Terry Lynn & Schmitter, Philippe C. Modes of Transition in Latin America, Southern and Eastern Europe. – International Social Science Journal, vol.128, P.269-284.

[9] NTV. “Gruzinskaja mechta” planiruet pomiritsia s Rossiej [“Georgian Dream” wants to make peace with Russia] – Available from: http://www.ntv.ru/novosti/344956

[10] Kazans’kyi, Denys. Geografija Verkhovnoi Rady [Geography of the Verkhovna Rada]. – Ukrainian Week, #45 (365).  – Last accessed: 16.02.2015.

[11] UNIAN. Majzhe chvert’ ukrainciv zajmaetsia volonterstvom – opytuvannia [Almost a quarter of Ukrainians participate in volunteering – poll] –  Last accessed: 16.02.2015.


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