Ukraine's new regime: the first 200 days

Mykola Riabchuk is one of Ukraine’s leading intellectuals. In an interview with Ingo Petz he outlines his views on the failure of the Orange Revolution and the early stages of the Yanukovych presidency
Ingo Petz
30 August 2010

Ingo Petz:

Mr Riabchuk, how is Yanukovych doing as president?

He’s carrying on the old post-Soviet tradition of playing with, rather than by, the rules.  What distinguishes him from his predecessors, however, is that his ‘blue’ coalition is far more monolithic and unscrupulous than the ‘orange’ coalition was. The new team is trying to roll out the system they established long ago in the Donetsk region through the whole of Ukraine. They are striving to monopolise all power completely and eliminate any pluralism, be it political, economic or even religious, cultural and linguistic.  They will probably not succeed but tensions are likely to grow and violence, even bloodshed, may follow. I’d like to emphasize that the new team is much more unscrupulous (‘the end justifies the means’) and authoritarian (‘might makes right’) than even Kuchma’s team was.

Mykola Riabchuk:

That sounds very dramatic. So are democracy and Western values once more lost to Ukraine? Or will Ukrainians kick Yanukovych out when they’ve had enough of his post-post-Soviet politics?

They may not be completely lost, but they are under really serious threat. Ukrainian society was as disappointed by Yushchenko’s chaotic democracy as the Russians were by Yeltsin’s feckless pluralism. They express a similar longing for a ‘strong hand’, which means primarily they are really fed up with dysfunctional institutions and yearn for some law and order. But, as opinion surveys reveal, Ukrainians are much less ready than Russians to sacrifice, or restrict, their civic liberties for a promise of prosperity. This may result from a different historical legacy. I don’t mean only the western part of Ukraine that, until WWII, had never been part of Russia or Soviet Union. I mean also Central Ukraine, which was historically part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and was only fully incorporated into the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century.

But there might be also a structural reason for this attitude. In Russia, authoritarianism may have a broad popular appeal because it is associated with empire, with great-power ambitions, with traditional, deep-rooted anti-Westernism and chauvinism. In Ukraine, it might be attractive only for a small, Sovietophile/Russophile fragment of society. But even they understand that this would definitely be unacceptable for the other, Ukrainophile part of society. And nobody wants bloody conflicts here. So, Ukrainians are very cautious about any nationalism, as it could explode the divided country.

Actually, Yushchenko lost not because he was a nationalist, but because he was perceived and portrayed as one. And that was enough. So even if you were to get a strong pro-authoritarian majority in Ukraine, it would inevitably be radically split by a simple question: “What kind of a ‘strong hand’ should it be – Ukrainian or Russian, Ukrainophone or Russophone ‘aboriginal’ or ‘Creole’?” And, please note, there is also a strong group - maybe not a majority, but a strong pro-democratic minority -  that rejects any authoritarianism, Russian or Ukrainian. So, in the event of an authoritarian threat, this minority would find situational allies in the pro-authoritarian camp – from that part of the camp who reject not any, but this specific, ethno-cultural brand of authoritarianism.

And, of course, it’s not only Ukrainian society that is divided, but Ukrainian elites too. The real threat may come from the fact that Yanukovych and his group simply don’t understand the subtlety of the political issues in Ukraine and the complex role of its multiple identities. Yanukovych and his associates come mostly from the Donbas – the most Russified and Sovietized region, which had always been ruled by this group in a virtually totalitarian, mafia-like style. They may labour under the delusion that all Ukraine is more or less like the Donbas. And may feel strong temptation to roll out over the whole country the same methods that proved so effective,.

So far, the Western governments have tacitly accepted the parliamentary coup d’etat – probably frustrated by the political instability, internecine wars between the president and the prime minister, and the permanent fruitless elections. They appear to give Yanukovych carte blanche for future reforms, which may be misread by his team as a licence for further violations of the law and curtailing civic freedoms. In sum, I don’t think democracy in Ukraine will be successfully eliminated, as it has been in Russia or Belarus.  But I’m afraid Yanukovych and his cronies may try it on – and the cost of resistance can be very high.

As a “fan” of the Orange Revolution you must be shattered that Yanukovych won the election.

Yes, of course, it’s a bitter pill. But not totally unexpected. Yanukovych didn’t really win: he received less than 50% of votes, and numerically 400,000 fewer than in 2004. But the Orange leaders definitely lost. They fully deserved the defeat and, in fact, did everything possible to facilitate his comeback.

How is he regarded by Ukrainian-speaking intellectuals? Any change in opinions towards him?

Actually, it’s not only Ukrainian-speaking intellectuals. All intellectuals regard him with scepticism. This can, for example, be seen from comments by Mikhail Beletskiy (in Russian).  He is a Russophone activist and ardent critic of Yushchenko’s policies of alleged ‘Ukrainization’, but he’s not very enthusiastic about the new government either. Yanukovych is a rough, uncultured, autocratic man, with a very narrow, provincial mindset and virtually no strategic vision for the country. His first steps realised our worst fears.

Firstly, he and his team completely disregard the law and defiantly ignore the constitution when politically expedient. Suffice it to say, they have indefinitely postponed the local elections due in May, even though the Constitution contains no provision for this. They created a parliamentary coalition and formed the government in an absolutely unconstitutional way, a kind of parliamentary coup d’etat. (The Constitutional Court declared this way of coalition-building unconstitutional in 2008. Now, the judges have decided the opposite, reportedly under heavy bribery and intimidation).

Secondly, Yanukovych and his team pursue a revengeful, confrontational policy line that intensifies divisions within the country. One of his ministers, Mr Tabachnyk, the minister of education, has made extremely Ukrainophobic statements.  He has never apologized for them, claiming that his political views have nothing to do with his professional activities in the ministry. Mr Mogilev, the interior minister, said that Stalin rightly deported all the Criman Tatars to Siberia because they were Nazi collaborators.  Yanukovych’s Russian/Russophone team is pretty xenophobic and very unlikely to bring interethnic accord and consent to the country.

And thirdly, most members of his new team have at various times had serious accusations of corruption brought against them.  There are well-substantiated reasons to believe that their skills and will for reforms fall far behind their appetite for looting the economy.

In the West a lot of people think the victory of Yanukovych marks the defeat of the Orange Revolution. Is their view correct?

Yes and no. The Orange Revolution was actually defeated in 2005, when the Orange leaders refused to reform the institutions and society failed to force them to deliver on their promises. All that followed was just the death throes of the revolution, which eventually resulted in Yanukovych’s comeback. At the same time, the legacy of the revolution is much deeper and more durable. This can be seen in the emergence of civil society in Ukraine: it’s not mature enough to bring about fundamental changes in the system, but vibrant enough to resist authoritarian pressure and to protect basic civic rights and liberties in a peaceful, non-violent way. If we believe in the theory of path dependence, we may say that the revolution failed because in the past we had too little experience of constitutionalism and democracy, and too much lawlessness and autocracy. But, by the same token, we may argue that next time Ukrainians will succeed because now their past contains also some important, albeit short, experience of civic behaviour, of mutual trust and solidarity during the revolution.

It seems that the mentality of the homo sovieticus (authoritarian etc.) still dominates the political culture in the Ukraine. Is the end of that species in sight? Is there a younger generation of politicians who give you hope for the democratic development of Ukraine?

Homo sovieticus, I believe, is gradually disappearing. Actually, this has been proved by sociological studies: people are becoming more self-confident, less paternalistic and they have more initiative. But the problem of a low social capital still remains, as well as a problem of what George Schöpflin calls the ‘East European political culture’. In this regard, Ukraine (maybe with exception of the western, Catholic part) is not very different from the Balkan states that belong to the same civilizational milieu of Eastern Christianity. If you take a look at our political infighting from this perspective, you would not find much difference between Yushchenko-Tymoshenko, on one hand, and, say, Iliescu-Basescu or any other bad East European politicians, on the other. An ugly rivalry within the Orange camp was actually not very different from political rivalries in most other post-communist countries. The main difference, however, was that in all those countries there was no ‘third force’, represented in Ukraine by the profoundly anti-national, anti-European Party of the Regions and the Communists. This also means that in all those countries Russia could not play the spoiler role as effectively as it did in Ukraine.

I feel both the Ukrainian elites and society in general are pretty tired with all the lawlessness and institutional dysfunctionality. The popular vote for Tyhypko and Yatsenyuk, who came third and fourth in the first round of the last elections, largely reflects society’s need for (relatively) new faces and, even more importantly, for politicians who position themselves less ideologically – as ‘pragmatists’ and ‘technocrats’. (Actually, Yushchenko won the 2004 elections primarily because he had a popular image, which was eventually eroded by his astounding fecklessness). But the main problem is how to change the rules of game without an external arbiter – what academics call ‘third-party enforcement’. Popular consent is not enough. Just remember the final episode of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Three gangsters point their guns at each other’s heads and nobody will put his gun down because he may be the first to die.   In the Balkans, the EU and NATO played the role of external arbiter with an even bigger gun. And this helped to change the paradigm.

So the way out will not be easy. But I believe that if Ukrainians can prove good will, consent and a critical mass for change, the EU would help. We (I mean both Ukraine and the EU) lost this chance immediately after the Orange revolution, but I hope we won’t lose the next . We just need to work hard to create it again.

What about a cultural vision for a future Ukraine? Being part of the EU? The West? Or finding its own way, a channel of communication between West and East?

I don’t believe in any ‘third way’, ‘channels’, ‘bridging’, ‘neutrality’. Or any other hollow rhetoric that is at best naïve, at worst hypocritical, and suits the geopolitical manipulations of the Kremlin. Russians may deceive themselves with ‘thirdwayism’ - as long as they have oil and gas - but Ukraine can’t afford it. Either we make a tremendous effort to join the First World, the ‘golden billion’, the core of the world economy (in Wallerstein’s terms), or we remain on its periphery (or, like China or Russia, the semi-periphery). For Ukraine, the third way leads directly into the Third World. I’d like our politicians to state this clearly rather than flirt with unviable ideas. True, Ukrainians are divided in their orientations between the West and Russia (or, more precisely, the mythical East Slavonic/Orthodox Christian ‘umma’). But this choice is not just about politics or geopolitics or even identity. It’s about values, about both level and way of life, about a secure and decent future. This should be clearly stated. Ukrainian divisions don’t mean we should avoid clear choices. It only means that we have to have better explanations, to work more persistently and, perhaps, to move more smoothly and carefully.

In Belarus for example a lot of people say: Thank God we don’t live in a chaotic, corrupt Mafia-style country like Ukraine. What would you reply?

If Belarusians, or Russians, are happy with their idea of happiness, then I’m not going to try and persuade them they’re wrong. Personally, I don’t think their countries are less corrupt.  Informal censorship merely means they have less information about corruption. And the control of corruption exercised by their authoritarian rulers is more centralized and hierarchical. So, if you want me to reply, I would say: well, you have a single mafia headed by your president as the godfather. While we, so far (unless Yanukovych introduces the Belarusian system in Ukraine), have many competing mafias, which creates a kind of pluralism in the country. This is not democracy yet but it could evolve from this pluralism – as it has in Western Europe since the Middle Ages. Ukraine might be more chaotic, but it has some chance for a breakthrough. They don’t. Actually, I like Boris Nemtsov’s comparison of Ukrainian politics to a lunatic asylum, and Russian politics to a cemetery. “In the lunatic asylum, theoretically, you can be cured. In the cemetery, you can’t”.

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