A man clears debris at a damaged residential building in a...

 A man clears debris at a damaged residential building in a suburb of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, where a military shell allegedly hit, on Friday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/AFP Contributor#AFP

The notion that democracy is in retreat around the world has been documented by watchdog groups, most recently by the nonprofit research group Freedom House.

That was before Russian jets, bombs, guns, and troops descended on Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin's calculus in unleashing war likely included the desire to throttle Ukraine's nascent democracy. He much prefers subservience from the former socialist republics that gained independence with the dissolution of Putin's beloved Soviet Union in 1991.

But Ukraine has since had a taste of democracy and apparently likes the flavor. Progress has occurred in fits and starts but in 2019 Ukrainians chose Volodymyr Zelenskyy as president in an election outside observers judged to be free and fair. Zelenskyy's promise to fight official corruption — a Sisyphean task in that nation — was rewarded with a resounding 73% of the popular vote.

In the United States, some factions on the right have been unsympathetic to Ukraine's struggle to shed its totalitarian strains and embrace a more Western style of governance.

"Ukraine, to be technical, is not a democracy," Fox News host Tucker Carlson said one recent night. "Democracies don't arrest political opponents, and they don't shut down opposition media, both of which Ukraine has done."

And both of which the former American president, one backed by Carlson, yearned publicly to do. And both of which have occurred recently in Hungary, whose authoritarian-minded leader Viktor Orbán has been embraced by Carlson.

Ukraine isn't perfect, to be sure. Freedom House gave it a score of 61 out of 100 on its freedom index for 2021, which translates to a rating of "partly free." Hungary, at 69, also rated a "partly free" as freedom worldwide declined for the 16th consecutive time. We've seen elected leaders in Tunisia, Nicaragua and elsewhere grab for power that should be beyond their reach, a military junta in Myanmar overthrow a democratically elected government, and various strongmen assert themselves.

Our nation has problems, too. We scored an 83, which translates to "free" but is a decline from the 89 mark in 2017. Some 58 countries and territories scored higher than the land of the free. That's sobering.

Freedom House cataloged our ills, including "rising political polarization and extremism, partisan pressure on the electoral process …"

It's neither atypical nor unexpected that Ukraine should have problems. Democracy doesn't spring fully grown, like Athena from the skull of Zeus. It's a process that must be nurtured.

After more than 240 years, America is still an experiment. Some of our citizens now work against it, trying to dismantle elements we took to be critical to its functioning. Some political and thought leaders pine for authoritarianism — or at the very least, fail to defend attacks on its pillars.

Zelenskyy, an actor and comedian before running for office, played a president on TV before becoming a real one. Suffice to say none of his thespian experiences prepared him properly for his current crucible. He's been learning on the job, much like his country.

But there he was last week, telling Russia, "We are different but that's not a reason to be enemies," a principle of democracy that cannot be uttered or even silently embraced by some of our own leaders.

And there was Zelenskyy, his own life conspicuously on the line, realizing later that no one was coming to help Ukraine, learning that democracies also have a calculus. It's not that President Joe Biden and European leaders didn't care about Ukraine's fragile flame. But they had their own economies and citizens and electoral prospects to worry about, and feared that withering sanctions or boots on the ground would redound to them.

Democracy is rarely easy, and never in the worst of times.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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