05/21/2014 02:21 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

Ukraine: What We Have Learned This Winter

What differentiates a free people from the oppressed? Is it independent media? A strong civil society? Universal suffrage? All those matter, but, at the fundamental level, the difference boils down to one thing, and one thing only: the ability and willingness of the citizens to take personal responsibility for their lives, for the way they are governed, and for their future. In Ukraine, we now understand this basic truth like never before. The hard lesson of what it means to take responsibility for our country is what we've learned this winter.

The less the citizens defer to those at the helm, the stronger the nation is. When we came to Maidan last December, we weren't following a charismatic leader; if anything, it was the mistrust of the political elites that brought us to the streets. Yanukovych and his henchmen have fled the country, and our interim government is certainly much more aware of their role to serve the people rather than to steal from them. That doesn't make them saints. The leadership is and must remain with the citizens, and the government must remain accountable to the people. This notion makes many of my fellow politicians uncomfortable, who openly or secretly wish that the people just went home and let them get back to running the country the way they always have. An empowered electorate and a political class cognizant of the source and the temporary nature of their authority is what a mature democratic society requires.

During the Soviet era of collectivism, the talk of personal responsibility would have gotten you in trouble with the KGB. Everything belonged to the state, including our choices, opinions, fears and desires. When Ukraine came upon its independence in 1991, we understood that our transition would be neither painless nor swift. While some longed for freedom, others feared or just couldn't comprehend the responsibility that came with it. In today's Ukraine, those asking for a "strong leader" have yet to shake off the Soviet legacy: They long for somebody to take care of them, to make decisions for them, to unburden them of this pesky personal responsibility. But we have passed the tipping point, and those voices are now in the minority.

Thanks to the Orange Revolution, we've learned about the power of the people over those who claim to rule them. We saw injustice when our elections were rigged, we came to the streets and fought for truth, and we won, but then we went home. Our job was done, we thought. Our new leader, whom we trusted and admired, was going to take care of us. He alone was the right person to transform our country and usher in the new era of justice, prosperity, and freedom. There was no need to burden ourselves with commitments beyond what we'd accomplished. With such irrational expectations, we failed Viktor Yuschenko, but more importantly, we failed ourselves. We now know how wrong we were, and we now know better!

This year, we have passed the most important hurdle towards a free society, and there is no turning back. A sense of duty replaced cynicism, and self-reliance overcame submission to power. This emergence of a culture of personal responsibility, a culture of distributed leadership, is fundamental and irreversible. The more I hear "we disagree" from the voters, the higher the chances for real change in Ukraine. We can solve the disagreements. What we can't solve is the disengagement of ordinary citizens from political life. This would wind back the clock on the progress we've made this winter. We are no longer seeking to swap a bad king for a good one; we are rewriting the social contract with our government. Whoever wins the presidential race will be accountable to the people, and the Ukrainians will no longer tolerate irresponsible government, and this is how I know our nation will not be defeated.