It started with a meal. The men ate crayfish, tomato and corn salad, cold meats, watermelon, and plums. They drank vodka and beer and brandy and coffee as then-presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko shared dinner and drinks with a few high-level security agents in the Ukrainian government.

After leaving the meeting, Yushchenko began to feel ill. A headache at first, then, nausea, vomiting, and extreme pain in his abdomen and back. His symptoms worsened, and Yushchenko fled Ukraine for Austria where doctors saved his life from what was discovered to be a poisonous overdose of dioxin. Despite the assassination attempt and his fractured health, Yushchenko returned to campaigning a few weeks later, working around the clock to beat his opponent, a former Prime Minister that many tied to a government system rotten with graft, bribery, and fraud.

There was an election plagued by blatant vote manipulation, a protest—the most dramatic moment of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution—in downtown Kiev that drew almost a million people, a shocking supreme court decision that called for another election, one which Victor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate, finally won.

Most outside media stopped paying attention at this point, but the story wasn’t over. Yushchenko came into power promising responsive, transparent government, but there were obstacles including an economic slowdown in the year after the election, rising fuel costs, and accusations of corruption among newly appointed government workers. Yushchenko's administration faced the same challenges as many emerging democracies including weak state agencies, powerful and manipulative neighbors like Russia, and a hurried, unsupervised privatization process.

These are problems that many young democracies face, problems that the LSA’s Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies (WCED) and the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia (WCEE) were specifically created to understand. The Weiser Centers have been analyzing the challenges facing the post-communist regimes in the former Soviet Union, East Central Europe, and Central Asia for five years. They have recently begun to expand their scope even further to include events like the Arab Spring and democratic movements around the world.

A Vibrant, Intellectual Community

The WCED and the WCEE were established in 2008 with a $10 million gift from former Ambassador Ronald Weiser ('66) and his wife, Eileen, with the express purpose of promoting scholarship to better understand the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.

“It’s not just a wishful examination of where we see democracies,” says Anna Grzymala-Busse, director of both Weiser Centers, “but a more systematic analysis of the conditions under which democracies can emerge, how can they be sustained, what it takes to actually make them work. And so we welcome both practitioners and scholars to contribute their views.”

Recently, the WCED has expanded its focus from former Soviet Union members to include other areas, and Grzymala-Busse hopes that the areas of inquiry can continue to grow.

Egyptians protesting in Tahrir Square in Cairo on November 25, 2011. The WCED is expanding its programming to cover events like the Arab Spring.
Photo credit Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images.

“We have already expanded our geographic coverage to look at critical events like the Arab Spring," Grzymala-Busse says. "I hope that in the future we can examine the surprising fate of democracies in Africa, and how it is that the Indian and Philippine democracies, which have had enormous challenges, have endured for decades and decades.”

The Weiser Centers provide faculty grants for travel and research, graduate student workshops, and a slate of programming meant to enlarge the ongoing conversation about the global spread of democracy through exhibits, panels, and visiting speakers.

As part of their fifth anniversary, the Weiser Centers are hosting former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, who is giving a speech titled, “Shades of Orange: A Decade of Ukrainian Democracy.”

“It will be fascinating to hear from one of the key participants of the Orange Revolution,” Grzymala-Busse says, “what lessons he’s drawn, what views he has on the Ukrainian developments after the Orange Revolution.

“President Yushchenko will also meet the students here and the faculty, and I hope he gets a sense of just what a vibrant, intellectual community we have here at Michigan. So much of our focus is on the former Soviet region, whether it’s Ukraine, Russia, or Eastern Europe, and the program has really continued to flourish.”

Victor Yushchenko’s speech will be held in Rackham Amphitheater on Thursday, October 3, 2013, at 4 p.m.

For more information on the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, please click here.