‘Ukraine is not Russia’, the title of the book by the former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, famously introduced a cliché that has since become widespread both inside and outside the country. It appears to suggest that Ukraine’s different political trajectory is shaped by some of its people’s specific characteristics.
The thesis is that Ukrainians, unlike Russians, are peaceable, inclined to compromise rather than to extreme moves, and devoid of the noxious ‘great power’ syndrome. These features, it is argued, make Ukraine inherently less authoritarian and more democratic than Russia. Yet the fact that ‘Ukraine is not Russia’ is better explained not so much by the alleged differences between the political cultures of Russia and Ukraine as by the structural factors that powerfully impact upon domestic politics in these two post-Soviet nations.
'During the two decades that have elapsed since independence, there have been only two persistent attempts to break the stalemate and move towards the Russia-like model of the all-powerful executive.'
In Russia these factors helped the Moscow elites consolidate their power in the form of (relatively) soft authoritarianism, whereas in Ukraine the structural constraints act as formidable obstacles to the consolidation of either authoritarianism or democracy. This results in Ukraine’s proverbial political stalemate which has prompted analysts to call it an ‘immobile state.’ During the two decades that have elapsed since independence, there have been only two persistent attempts to break the stalemate and move towards the Russia-like model of the all-powerful executive.
Kuchma made the first attempt during his second presidential term. It failed miserably in the upheaval of the ‘Orange Revolution’ when Kuchma sought to pull off a ‘smooth transition’ and make Viktor Yanukovych his successor by rigging the 2004 presidential election.
Yanukovych himself is now making the second attempt. Although he too is unlikely to succeed, the jury is still out on whether his ultimate failure to consolidate authoritarianism will lead to the consolidation of Ukrainian democracy.
Ukraine’s regionalism is arguably the most serious obstacle to the monopolization of political power by any single political force. Voting patterns have persisted stubbornly throughout all national elections since 1991: there have not been any significant changes and the country remains split roughly 50-50. This has prompted some commentators to suggest the existence of a threat that Ukraine might eventually divide along the lines of the seemingly antagonistic ‘pro-Russian east’ and ‘pro-European west.’
'Ukraine’s regionalism is arguably the most serious obstacle to the monopolization of political power by any single political force.'
This perspective, however, ignores the crucial role of Central Ukraine, including the capital city of Kyiv, described by one astute commentator as speaking like Donetsk [i.e. Russian] but voting like Lviv [i.e pro-European]. The point here is that Ukraine’s deep-seated regional divisions create a structural basis for the perpetual emergence of political opposition. Whoever wants to win the Ukrainian election and then stay in power is compelled first to seek cross-regional support and then to rule through building coalitions in parliament. It is this that underlies the alleged ‘culture of compromise’ in Ukrainian politics.
Lack of ideology
Besides being regionalized, Ukrainian parties lack any ideological foundations whatsoever: they act as political machines built around individual politicians and/or certain business interests. This creates additional difficulties for those seeking to concentrate political power in Ukraine. The dearth of ideas means that political loyalty can be secured solely by material inducements, largely through distributing rents via the patronage networks. But this also means that the would-be authoritarian leader has to have enough rents at hand to be distributed and this is problematic, above all because the Ukrainian economy is in such a dire state.
Thus, unlike Putin’s Russia, Ukraine appears to be unable to build a broad and sustainable basis for authoritarianism. While Moscow can deploy the ‘great power’ ideology and abundant energy resources, Kyiv lacks either of these two ‘pillars’ of authoritarian rule. Yet, paradoxically, the same structural factors that inhibit the trend toward authoritarianism in Ukraine appear to act as constraints on building a viable pro-democracy opposition.
'While Moscow can deploy the ‘great power’ ideology and abundant energy resources, Kyiv lacks either of these two ‘pillars’ of authoritarian rule.'
Ukraine’s east and west radically diverge in their perspectives on what it means to be Ukrainian. While the western regions are preoccupied chiefly with national identity, particularly the language issue and the ethnic-centred historical narrative, the country’s east and south are more focused on social identities and accompanying social, rather than national, issues. Central Ukraine (with Kyiv) could provide the social space for a nation-wide compromise, which could serve as the basis for a newly-created Ukrainian civic nation. Politically, however, the position of this strategic region is poorly articulated: as yet it lacks it own distinct political voice and there is no strong political force that would represent its interests. Furthermore, the aversion to any ideology can be as detrimental to opposition forces as it is to the ‘party of power’ [Party of the Regions].
The lack of ideology results in Ukrainian politics being permeated with utter cynicism. The pervasive immoralism makes it far too easy for Ukrainian policymakers, in the event they are made an offer they cannot refuse, to defect from their parties and change sides with impunity. Time and again Ukrainian opposition has been eroded – and demoralized – by multiple defections.
'When Yanukovych won the 2010 presidential race with a very slim margin, he became the first Ukrainian ‘minority president’ with less than 50% of popular support.'
When Yanukovych won the 2010 presidential race with a very slim margin, he became the first Ukrainian ‘minority president’ with less than 50% of popular support. Yet it was Yanukovych who decided resolutely to tip Ukraine’s precarious balance of power in his favour and to build the authoritarian Putinesque ‘power vertical.’ Such a concentration of power such in Ukraine could not be achieved through negotiations, cutting deals and making compromises, so the only option remaining to Yanukovych was serial violation of the Constitution and the unbridled deployment of administrative resource, the controlling and regulatory powers of the state, including the infamous selective law enforcement.
So far, Yanukovych and his Donetsk clique have managed to move further than Kuchma towards consolidating authoritarianism. But they are in for an uphill struggle.