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Volodymyr Zelensky: Not Exactly a Champion of Democracy

Ukraine's President Zelensky. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Ukraine's President Zelensky. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

American supporters of Washington’s Ukraine policy often portray Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky as a noble champion of democracy who deserves even more U.S. military assistance than he has already received. The political and media love-fest accompanying Zelensky’s address to a joint session of Congress in late December 2022 was a recent example of such hero worship

Volodymyr Zelensky: A Misguided Love Affair? 

Voice of America published an article comparing Zelensky’s appearance to Winston’s Churchill’s address to Congress in December 1941. David Frum, writing in the Atlantic, asserted that Zelensky recalled us to ourselves and our democratic values. Frum added that the Ukrainian president “came to the United States to thank us for supporting Ukraine. It is Americans who should thank him.” An earlier New York Times column by Bret Stephens contended that Americans “admire Zelensky because he has restored the idea of the free world to its proper place.”

Such fawning ignores the mounting evidence of Zelensky’s flagrant abridgment of civil liberties and democratic norms. The blind attitude of Americans is reminiscent of the sanitized treatment given to an earlier bogus champion of democracy, Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. Between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s (especially during Ronald Reagan’s administration), numerous political and media figures in the United States pushed for greater support for Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and its insurgency against Angola’s leftist government. They also were willing to overlook their “democratic” client’s massive flaws. 

The enthusiasm of American movement conservatives”for Savimbi was especially pronounced. Prominent supporters included such organizations as the Heritage Foundation, Freedom House, the American Conservative Union, the Young Americans for Freedom, and the American Security Council. Various publications, including Human Events, National Review, American Spectator, and the Wall Street Journal amplified the pro-Savimbi case. Savimbi’s backers arranged a major speaking tour for the Angolan leader in 1979 and facilitated his meetings in Washington with congressional leaders and administration officials in 1981, 1986, and 1989.

Their admiration for Savimbi remained intact, even though there were troubling indications early on of UNITA’s harsh, autocratic internal practices. Johns Hopkins University Professor Piero Gleijeses observes that despite such disagreeable details, Savimbi’s American allies “seized the high ground; they argued in terms of both U.S. interests and morality.” The ongoing campaign for enhanced U.S. support for Zelensky exhibits the same features.

Presenting Savimbi with an award from the American Conservative Union and the Young Americans for Freedom, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick lauded him as “one of the few authentic heroes of our time.” Kirkpatrick’s idealized portrait of Savimbi was typical of the right-wing perspective in the United States. President Ronlad Reagan shared that view, at one point succinctly describing Savimbi in a diary entry as “a good man.” 

Sen. Orrin Hatch at the time said that “I have had the privilege of meeting Mr. Savimbi and have been extremely impressed by his honesty, integrity, religious commitment.” The conflict in Angola was not a civil war, the Utah senator insisted. “It is a battle over ideologies: Soviet totalitarianism vs. freedom, self-determination, and democracy.” U.S. aid to Savimbi would “send a strong signal to the world that we are determined to help freedom fighters resist Communist hegemony.” If one substitutes “authoritarianism” for “Soviet totalitarianism,” and “Russian aggression” for “Communist hegemony,” today’s dominant and thoroughly simplistic message about needing to support Zelensky and his cause is virtually the same.

The enthusiasm for UNITA and its leader became increasingly strident and uncritical. In retrospect, one of the more embarrassing episodes in the campaign to lionize Savimbi was the appearance in 1986 in the Wall Street Journal of an op-ed under his byline, but with major portions apparently written by a ghost writer. It hailed the virtues of capitalism and democracy and pledged to make Angola a model of both values if the United States helped UNITA oust the pro-Communist government in Luanda. In a 1989 lecture to the Heritage Foundation, Savimbi was selling the same message.

Savimbi’s article and subsequent lecture told American proponents of democracy (especially conservatives) exactly what they wanted to hear. UNITA’s ultimate goal, he insisted, was not just to overthrow the pro-Communist regime and its Cuban military backers, but to build a new, democratic country. Nor was that all. “In addition to UNITA’s commitment to a democratic, multiparty Angola with religious tolerance and freedom of speech, it is vital that we recognize the importance of economic liberties,” Savimbi insisted. National Review gushed about his “astonishing defense of freedom.”

What is so striking about the success of the pro-Savimbi camp’s propaganda was that UNITA did not practice any of those political or economic principles in the portion of Angola that it controlled. There was certainly no evidence of democracy, multiparty or otherwise; UNITA maintained a ruthless monopoly of power. Abuses included war crimes against civilians and the systematic imprisoning or killing of political opponents or potential leadership competitors. The latter category eventually included some of his closest associates, such as Tito Chingunji and Wilson dos Santos. Even some of Savimbi’s American supporters grudgingly had to admit that UNITA resorted to torture and coercive “re-education” measures.

Zelensky Damages Ukraine’s Democracy:  

Likewise, the Ukraine government’s repression is becoming increasingly flagrant and alarming. Since the Russian invasion, Zelensky has used the war as a justification for outlawing 11 opposition parties. He also invoked martial law to issue a presidential decree that combined all national television stations into one platform. On Dec. 29, 2022, Zelensky signed a new law that his party had pushed through parliament — a measure that further curbed an independent press. Other presidential actions sought to ban the Russian Orthodox Church and imposed severe sanctions on its top clerics. A growing number of people are being jailed without due process. 

Zelensky and his closest colleagues have no tolerance for even the most peaceful opponents, domestic or foreign. In the summer of 2022, the Ukraine government’s Center for Countering Disinformation published a blacklist of critics that included numerous prominent Americans. The implicitly threatening nature of that list became even more evident in late September, when the CCD issued a revised roster (including addresses) of the top 35 targets and smeared those individuals as “disinformation terrorists” and “war criminals.” 

One key difference between the misguided support for Savimbi and the equally misguided support for Zelensky is that the earlier episode was heavily partisan in nature. Conservatives were much more inclined to back the Angolan conman; liberals ranged from tepidly favorable to overtly hostile. Unfortunately, the portrayal of Zelensky as a champion of democracy and freedom is depressingly bipartisan. His American admirers simply refuse to acknowledge their client’s alarming ideological and behavioral warts. In retrospect, that allegiance may prove to be as embarrassing to Zelensky’s fans as it ultimately did to Savimbi’s advocates.

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Author Expertise and Experience:

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to 19FortyFive, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).