With a role of dice, my youngest son, Matthew, age 12, counted off the spaces with a small metal object. On the last number he placed the thimble on the square marked Boardwalk. A bright smile filled his face since he already owned the other blue space, Park Place. According to the rules, Matthew could now place hotels on the spaces, which would likely lead to his victory.
Unfortunately for Matthew, Dad decided that it would be a good time for his three sons to learn a lesson in democracy and the rule of law. “From this point of the game forward, Dad makes the rules. And the first rule is Dad gets to buy Boardwalk and Park Place for $500.” “What?!?” As you can imagine, Matthew cried, “That’s not fair!” His older brothers laughed until I bought their properties too.
On Nov. 21, 2013, protestors gathered at Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovych, president of Ukraine, had abruptly suspended talks with the European Union on association, free trade and the implementation of rule-of-law principles. When the protestors formed to voice their displeasure, Yanukovych bussed in goons to chase down and pummel the protestors. But the protestors would not be deterred. They supported each other by setting up tents, sharing food and building fires to keep warm. This was no ordinary protest.
Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire known as the “Chocolate King” after his chocolate empire, stood side-by-side with students and laborers in support. Ukrainians greeted each other, “Slava Ukrayini!” “Heroyam slava!” (“Glory to Ukraine!” “Glory to the heroes!”) Thousands sang Ukrainian songs late into the night in defiance. The Ukrainian people, of all walks of life, were demanding change.
Ukraine was now the line of scrimmage between two civilizations – Yanukovych with his ties to Russia, oligarchy and corruption representing one; the opposition, demanding closer ties with Europe and rules against corruption representing the other. The competing cultures offering Ukrainians two distinct choices.
To Americans, the decision would seem quite simple. Americans often take for granted important freedoms such as freedom of speech and expression. For many Americans, it is difficult to imagine a judiciary that is not independent. There are consequences, for the most part, in the United States for not playing by the rules.
Ukraine, however, is financially broke. They are heavily dependent on Russia for trade and fuel. The Ukrainian system lacks simple checks and balances necessary for a transparent and reliable government. There are rarely consequences for failing to play by the rules. As a result, almost nobody plays by the rules. Keeping to the status quo for Ukrainians had some appeal since there was some certainty that homes would be heated and life could continue. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered lower gas prices and closer economic ties with Russia.
On Feb. 21, 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia. The Ukrainian people chose to seek a path toward government run by institutions and not by individuals and personalities.
Ukraine’s decision has had consequences. Russia still does not recognize the Ukraine government. The Crimean Peninsula has been lost and an ongoing insurgency in the east continues. But the Ukrainian decision seems to have been a long-term play. It has become more apparent that the Ukrainian people understand that profound changes in government may not arrive as quickly as Putin’s gas.
Poroshenko was elected Ukrainian president May 25. While Poroshenko is not free from controversy, his selection in an open and free election symbolizes a clear step toward democracy. Essential to Ukraine’s survival is its adoption of the rule of law. Few countries rival Ukraine in corruption, but Yanukovych’s removal is evidence that Ukrainian people desire a transparent government with no person above the law.
Over the next several months, important rule of law decisions will be made in Ukraine. Judicial review of legislation, judicial independence, protection of individual rights, and a defined distribution of powers between government institutions must not only be adopted but respected. Constitutional and legal principles for democracy and the rule of law will either become part of Ukrainian culture or the country will remain a poor form of oligarchy.
As for the Monopoly game, Dad, much like Yanukovych, was removed from the game for making up his own rules. As explained by my wise 12-year-old, “We are better when we all play by the rules.”•
Christopher Lee is a partner in the Evansville firm of Kahn Dees Donovan & Kahn and sits on the board of directors of DTCI. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.