Institutions, a Foundation of Democracy

The following article originally appeared in NV

By Kristina Kvien
February 9, 2021

When people around the world watched the inauguration of the U.S. President on January 20, they witnessed not just a political transition, but one of the oldest democratic traditions in America. It is a celebration and ceremony that Americans turn to every four years for both reassurance and inspiration: reassurance that the experiment we began in 1789 endures, and inspiration that America will continue to evolve in a direction that improves the lives of every citizen. In addition to these constants, this year’s inauguration reminded us a of key source of our strength as a nation, and speaks to the work we are doing with Ukraine in support of its chosen Euro-Atlantic path and its fight for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This U.S. inauguration was unique in America’s modern history, as it followed violent challenges to the fundamental principle of the peaceful transfer of power. In his inauguration speech, President Biden reminded us that “democracy is fragile.” It must be tended, nurtured, and protected, not just by political leaders who commit to pursuing public rather than personal interests, but by professional, independent government institutions that anchor the rule of law and protect democracy from internal and external threats.

Institutions are not exciting or flashy, usually operating without fanfare or publicity. But the work they do, solidly grounded by law and regulation, is what underpins a democracy, and protects it against the vagaries of politics. When our electoral process was challenged, our institutions held firm. Our judicial system, at all levels, fairly and impartially considered claims. Our state and local election commissions developed processes to allow votes to be cast despite a deadly pandemic and counted those votes according to established procedure. Our law enforcement agencies thwarted threats coming from inside and outside our borders and defended our Capitol against a violent assault. Despite significant strains, our institutions held and, in the words of President Biden, “democracy prevailed.”

The U.S. belief in and reliance on institutions, put to the test in recent months, is why we have focused significant effort and resources to help Ukraine develop its own institutional framework. There have been successes over the past decade. The United States has supported the decentralization process, giving local communities powers to generate and decide how to spend their own revenues for the first time. In partnership with the United Kingdom, we supported the creation of the Prozorro online procurement system, which has encouraged competition in government tenders, reduced corruption, and helped Ukraine save more than $5 billion since its launch in 2016.

The National Bank of Ukraine has become a capable, independent organization that helped stabilize Ukraine’s economy and reform its banking sector. The United States is providing advice, equipment, and training to police forces around the country, and technical assistance in the criminal justice sector to ensure Ukraine’s prosecutors meet an objective standard of professionalism and integrity. We have responded to the Ukrainian government’s requests to help NABU, SAPO and the HACC investigate, prosecute, and try those accused of committing corruption crimes.

We do this because a Ukrainian state that serves the interests of its people – as expressed through Ukraine’s democratic process – advances U.S. strategic interests. The United States seeks a Ukraine that is democratic, prosperous, secure and free to be a strong partner in Euro-Atlantic security, in trans-Atlantic trade, and in technology and innovation. Ukraine’s hard-won military skill, experience battling disinformation, and highly educated entrepreneurs and innovators should fully join the Euro-Atlantic community and share all of its opportunities.

Sustained progress on building Ukrainian institutions is not easy and challenges remain, particularly in the area of judicial reform. The vested interests who have benefitted from opaque, corrupt systems will exert all their influence to undermine the efforts of the government and the Rada to advance reform. By preventing malign actors from undermining the rule of law and facilitating corruption, the institutional framework will become strong enough to withstand future threats.

America’s inauguration of its 46th President marked a new chapter in our history. Despite the challenges, the strong foundations of American democracy prevailed. As President Biden’s team takes charge, I am confident that U.S.-Ukrainian relations will be stronger than ever, and cooperation to build and protect democratic institutions will continue.