Democracy, Race, and Ukraine

Nigerian students in Ukraine wait at the platform at the Lviv railway station on Sunday. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

The Russian violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty has brought the former Eastern Bloc country to the forefront of news cycles. Democratic countries standing up to the autocratic ruler of Vladimir Putin have also been a focus of the crisis. However, the way democratic world leaders and the media talk about the conflict in tandem with a global backslide of democracy must be part of the conversation. With the invasion in late February, cable news and newspapers report wall-to-wall coverage of the atrocities happening in the country, and to its citizens. Yet, coverage of the tragedy in Ukraine also provides a lens into the way news organizations cover conflicts in different parts of the world. Charlie D’Agata, a senior foreign correspondent for CBS News, declared on air, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades.” Many other comments have been using the same line of thinking, that Ukrainians deserve more of our sympathy simply because they are Europeans who do not live in consistent conflict-ridden zones. These racist undertones permeate not only news coverage, but also the policies of European and Western countries, furthering the rise in authoritarian and right-wing ideology. 

It is not only news coverage of Ukraine that has amplified divisive language in the depiction of the conflict. The influx of refugees into Ukraine’s neighbors also reveals a troubling narrative. The United Nations (UN) reports that approximately 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country since February 24th, with the majority seeking solace in Poland. Prime Minister Kiril Petkov of Bulgaria told journalists, “These are not the refugees we are used to… these people are Europeans.” He further detailed, “These people are intelligent, they are educated people… This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists…” Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has taken a strict anti-immigration platform, claiming that migration threatens the culture of the country. Yet, this hardline does not apply to Ukrainian refugees as Hungary has taken in close to 300,000 Ukrainians according to the UN. This divisive ideology taking hold in democratic countries is problematic, especially as democracy backslides.

Freedom House, an advocacy organization that conducts research on democracy, political freedom, and human rights around the world, reported a decline in democracy over the past 16 years. As democracy and freedom around the world has weakened, authoritarian regimes have been on the rise. Most notably, China and Russia are the biggest offenders. However, the report notes that even within democracies, there is an increasing, homegrown illiberal streak. Although Poland, one of Ukraine’s most notable neighbors, has been rated as Free (81/100) in Freedom House’s most recent report, the country’s freedom score has been slipping in recent years. In 2017, the country scored an 89. Since 2015, the socially conservative Law and Justice party came into power and enacted numerous laws extending their political influence over state institutions, damaging the country’s democratic progress in the process, while fomenting a rise in dangerous and discriminatory rhetoric. This slow backslide is reminiscent of their neighbor, Hungary, who has slid from Free to Partly Free over the course of just a few years. It is important to recognize these slow declines in democracy, especially in Europe, which is lauded as a “bastion of democracy.”

Puzzling still, many say the crisis has shown that perhaps the age and world order of liberal democracies is not ending. At a time when liberal democracies seem to be uniting against a common, authoritarian enemy, Russia, the world must be weary of the rhetoric that underlies this tragedy. While the war in Ukraine may show that democracies prevail when they band together, there is also a specific pretext that comes with this unity. Democracies will band together against a common enemy in support of people who deserve their backing. This subtext is perilous, pervading through policy. If democracies are to uphold the world order, they must do so not only when it is convenient for them or suits a subtle narrative. As we sympathize and help the Ukrainian people, we must remain cognizant of the underlying rhetoric of the crisis that prioritizes the suffering of certain ethnic groups. As democracies rise to thwart an authoritarian enemy, we must look to the actions and policies of those democracies. A backslide in democracy around the world has been attributed to a rise in fringe ideology, expressed through policies and rhetoric. In times of crisis, such as the war in Ukraine, the distinction in who deserves the world’s attention and outpouring of support becomes even clearer, with world leaders dictating that Ukrainian refugees are fit to enter their countries while dismissing Middle Eastern refugees. Echoes of this rhetoric in the media emphasize the weakening of democracies. While Ukrainians are most certainly deserving of our attention, we must not forget those not highlighted in the media who are often villainized by the same leaders stepping up their show of support for Ukraine. Every person in a conflict zone deserves our sympathy, no matter if they have been enduring war for 20 months or 20 days.

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