Reconstructing the power vertical: the authoritarian threat in Ukraine

Subverting the fight against corruption, whipping up patriotic publics and coopting the media and judiciary — this is the face of authoritarian drift in Ukraine.

Mikhail Minakov
29 June 2017

May 2017: Ukrainian citizens rally against a presidential decree blocking the operation of Russian social networks in Ukraine. (c) NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Eastern Europe has become a source of short- and long-term risks for the entire European continent. Inter-state conflicts, authoritarianism and illiberalism seem to permanently dwell here and increase the threats to democracy in other parts of Europe. With the commence of the Russian-Ukrainian war and annexation of Crimea, eastern European states are increasing their armies and military spending. An authoritarian belt running from Ankara to Moscow is growing stronger, tempting post-communist elites to take the same path. And an “illiberal belt” in Central Europe is fueling Euroscepticism and spreading neoconservatism on the EU’s eastern flank. The only promising event in eastern Europe over the last five years was the EuroMaidan Revolution and the subsequent attempt to implement liberal reforms in Ukraine.

The hopes inspired by the first peaceful protests in Kiev were connected with the idea that authoritarian trends in Ukrainian politics could be stopped, that Ukraine could move towards European integration, and that there could be a return to political and economic pluralism in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region. However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine, combined with the rise in extreme forces on the Maidan and perception of western support in ousting former president Viktor Yanukovych, meant that EuroMaidan’s liberal agenda has faced an uphill battle.

Still, reforms continued apace despite annexation and war. Until 2016, this liberal agenda managed to drive political and economic reforms in Ukraine, with the post-Maidan coalition pushing forward with decentralisation, anti-corruption reforms and efforts to improve the business climate in Ukraine.

Ukraine is now following regional authoritarian trends and is betraying domestic and international hopes of democratic transformation

These reforms have had limited success so far. And their speed has slowed down dramatically — with some agonic oscillations. Decentralisation has not established a real system of local self-governance; the fight against corruption has not led to the institutionalisation of good governance; and economic reforms have not made Ukraine a comfortable country neither for its citizens, nor for investors and/or entrepreneurs.

In short, since the fall of Yanukovych’s regime, Ukraine has not become a vibrant democracy. On the contrary, in 2016-2017 the informal power of the president and his entourage has grown considerably and democratic institutions have been eroded.

Ukraine is now following regional authoritarian trends and is betraying domestic and international hopes of democratic transformation.

An emerging personalist regime

2016 was a critical year for Ukraine’s development. EuroMaidan’s democratic potential was finally exhausted and its civil revolution finally ended. Rather than a flourishing democracy and civil society, 2016 brought the non-democratic and non-legal consolidation of power by and around the president.

According to Ukraine’s constitution, the country is a parliamentary-presidential republic. But in reality, president Petro Poroshenko has managed to informally create de facto presidential system. His clan controls most Ukrainian institutions: law-enforcement agencies, the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government, the electoral commission and the media.

By law, the president controls the security services, army, diplomacy and prosecutor's office. Poroshenko has chosen to appoint loyal people to these institutions, regardless of their skill or experience

By law, the president controls the security services, army, diplomacy and prosecutor's office. Poroshenko has chosen to appoint loyal people to these institutions, regardless of their skill or experience. An extreme example of this is Yuri Lutsenko who was appointed general prosecutor in May 2016 despite having no legal background. The president went to extreme lengths to get a majority of deputies in parliament first to change the legal requirements for the job and then to vote for his ally.

Poroshenko managed to put his junior partner from his home region of Vinnytsia, Volodymyr Groisman, into the prime minister’s seat after a long struggle for power with former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The decision to appoint Groisman was made after month-long discussions between different clans and political groups in the presidential administration. Groisman’s appointment signaled the end of the balance between ruling clans that had characterised post-Maidan Ukraine. As of April 2016, the president controls 19 of 24 seats in the Cabinet of Ministers.


April 2016: Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko and prime minister Vladimir Groysman celebrate the latter's appointment as prime minister. (c) Efrem Lukatsky / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The president’s FGP has also gained informal control over parliament. The new speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Andriy Parubiy, is a close ally of the president. The partnership between the president and speaker has led to a situation whereby the Rada was functioning without a ruling coalition (which directly contradicts Ukrainian constitution). This coalition ceased to exist as early as February 2016. However, the presidential administration and speaker have managed to convince different factions and minor MP groups vote for new laws, including constitutional amendments, for over a year now. Parubiy has ignored the opposition’s numerous demands that the speaker announce a list of factions and of the MPs that currently comprise the ruling coalition.

Ukraine’s judiciary cannot be considered an independent branch of government. Little has changed since the mid-1990s: the judiciary remains an integral part to the power base of Ukraine’s leading clans — currently, Poroshenko’s. As a result, public trust in Ukrainian courts is at an all-time low. Shortly after EuroMaidan, the judiciary became one of the first targets of lustration. However, attempts to lustrate corrupt judges have failed miserably, as there are legitimate concerns about the competence and independence of those involved in lustration efforts. Indeed, lustration has had rather unexpected consequences: the judiciary has become even more obedient to the ruling clans who saved them from civil society pressure.

Since defeating Yatsenyuk, Poroshenko has put an unprecedented amount of pressure on MPs to approve constitutional changes to the judiciary. In the ideal world, this reform would make Ukrainian courts independent and fit to guarantee fair trial. However, the immediate result of this reform has been an even greater dependence of judges on the president, at least in the current transition period, which ends in 2019 (conveniently, the year of Ukraine’s next presidential elections). Behind the scenes, the presidential FPG is promoting itself as the only source of security for individual judges.

Our man on the commission

Another important center of power in Ukraine is the Central Electoral Commission (CEC). The vast majority of CEC members were to be rotated several years ago, according to Ukrainian law. Nonetheless, after Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014, authorities agreed to prolong CEC members’ mandate so that presidential and parliamentary elections could be conducted properly.

After the 2014 elections, the ruling clans started using the CEC to try to keep early elections from being held. In 2016, Petro Poroshenko proposed a list of potential new members to the Rada that would ensure his unquestioned dominance in the committee. But even the subdued Rada did not endorse this list. Currently, there is a stalemate vis-à-vis possible early elections in Ukraine: the mandates of 13 out of 15 members on the CEC have officially expired. This is a win-win situation for the ruling group: if there is a change in the CEC membership, they would have majority there; if the status quo remains, the group can go on ruling until 2019 without early elections.

Pressure on individual members of the CEC also ensures its loyalty: Mykhailo Okhendovskyi, the chairman of the CEC was put under investigation on suspicion of having been bribed by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions before EuroMaidan. Despite these charges and the expiration of his mandate, Okhendovskyi remains the chairman of the committee.

Media decline

Finally, the president’s group is expanding its control over media in Ukraine. Media pluralism is a living legacy of EuroMaidan, and Reporters Without Borders has observed some optimistic recent trends: Ukraine improved its media freedom ranking in 2016 by 22 positions (from 129th in the world in 2015 to 107th in 2016).


Kyiv says farewell to Pavel Sheremet. The famous journalist was assassinated in a car bomb last July. Image still: Radio Svoboda / YouTube. Some rights reserved.But this assessment seems to have been unrealistically positive. Media independence is actually in decline. In 2016, Ukraine witnessed a number of attacks on major TV channels that constitute the major source of information about politics for Ukrainians. This trend started in May 2016 with the leak of foreign journalists’ personal information by nationalist cyber-activists. Several weeks later, the highly respected journalist Pavel Sheremet was murdered.

Then Inter, one of Ukraine’s most-watched TV channels, was attacked and burned by activists. Despite international pressure, authorities have heretofore made no real effort to investigate these attacks on journalists and media and bring those responsible to justice.

Today, Poroshenko’s clan has considerable control over law-enforcement agencies, the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, the electoral commission and the media. This control is empowering it to exist as a power vertical

Another major TV channel, 1+1, which is owned by Igor Kolomoisky, now a rival to Poroshenko’s clan, was involved in a months-long dispute with the National Council on TV and Radio Broadcasting over a license to continue broadcasting. And over the last several months, the TV channels STB, 112, and NewsOne, and the popular opposition radio station Vesti, have described coming under increasing pressure from the authorities to change their editorial policies. There is a legitimate reason for this pressure: a new law requires that media outlets disclose who owns them. But it’s also political: authorities have ramped up pressure on media in order to gain control over outlets they believe they may need to get their message across in future election campaigns.

In addition to media control, there are attempts by the ruling groups to limit access to social networks. In May-June 2017, the most popular social networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki were prohibited as “channels for Russian influence”. Even though there were some limited reasons for government security concerns the decision is a way to far-reaching in terms of violation of the basic human rights. And it has disrupted horizontal communication between families, friends and small groups across post-Soviet states.

Screen Shot 2017-06-29 at 09.jpg

Igor Guzhva, editor of Strana.ua, claims that Ukraine's presidential administration is behind the extortion investigation into him. Source: NewsOne. Also the major opposition web-media Strana.ua found itself under pressure. On 22 June, its office was searched and its editor was arrested and accused by an MP of an attempt at extortion. Next day the pro-government media, bloggers and bot-groups started campaign in support for the closure of “non-patriotic and pro-separatist” media outlet.

Likewise, Ukraine’s Security Services (SBU) have increased their attempt to control media and social networks. Several days ago Vasyl Hrytsak, SBU chief, called on “all patriots”, and later patriotic journalists and experts to cooperate with the SBU in order to diminish impact of the Kremlin and its “fifth column” media in Ukraine. Later, the service set up a special page on Facebook where citizens can denounce their fellow Ukrainians for lack of patriotism.

Today, Poroshenko’s clan has considerable control over law-enforcement agencies, the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, the electoral commission and the media. This control is empowering it to exist as a power vertical.

Internal resistance to authoritarian trends

The major threat to Poroshenko’s consolidation of power is Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his allies. In the absence of institutional checks and balances, the joint rule of Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko’s clans was seen by many western countries as an acceptable temporary surrogate of checks-and-balances for a country at war and in need for reforms; the division of powers between the president and the parliament made it seem realistic that political pluralism would be safeguarded in post-revolutionary Ukraine.


Is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, despite his lack of popularity, poised for a public return to Ukraine's power politics? (c) Kay Nietfeld/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.And it was — until 2016. Today, the power of Yatsenyuk’s clan is based on several key elements. First, it has members in the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Internal Affairs and its parliamentary faction (National Front) controls 81 seats. It also has strong ties to Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary of the National Security Council Secretary, and Andriy Parubiy; both were once members of Yatsenyuk’s clan, though they are now loyal to the president.

What’s more, many of the managers of state enterprises who appointed during Yatsenyuk’s tenure still support their former boss. Finally, through Arsen Avakov, the minister of interior and an oligarch in his own right, Yatsenyuk has influence over informal networks of civic activists, including some veterans’ unions and several rightwing organisations. However, Yatsenyuk, whose image was highly damaged by his time as prime minister (support for National Front dropped from 22 percent in 2014 to 1 percent in December 2016), has seen his influence greatly reduced.

In recent weeks, Kiev’s politicians have been discussing a possibility of creation of new “party of power” that would unite the Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk clans. Every Ukrainian regime tried to establish a party of power (Kuchma’s People’s Democratic Party, Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine Party, and Yanukovych Party of Regions). The same party exists in, for example, Russia: Putin’s United Russia. This type of eastern European political party is usually created to additionally control and unite ruling groups, ministers and governors, national and regional bureaucracies in a line controlled (officially or unofficially) by president. If the plan to create a new party of power would be realised, it would mean a new critical step towards establishment of the vertical of power in Ukraine.

There are no systemic external obstacles to the functioning of the power vertical in Kiev today. Only internal conflicts within the president’s ruling group can slow down (or even revert) the establishment of Poroshenko’s personalist rule in Ukraine

Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (2007-2010) and her party Batkivshchina remain the most popular political group in Ukraine (however her negative rating is much higher than her support, which is the case for all leading politicians of Ukraine). Still, Tymoshenko is not popular enough to be able to unite different opposition groups and is currently polling just five to four points ahead of Poroshenko.

Yuri Boiko, leader of Opposition Bloc, the successor to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, polls close to Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, though his and his party’s best days are behind them. The Opposition Bloc is not stable and in the recent years it was on a brink of split, reportedly because of a dispute between the billionaire Rinat Akhmetov and Boris Kolesnikov on one side, and a coalition of smaller groups including Boyko and Serhiy Lyovochkin, on the others. Akhmetov’s group is eager to cooperate with the president’s cadre, while Lyovochkin’s allies are more directed at resisting Bankova street. Opposition Bloc is not in a position to seriously counter Poroshenko’s power, at least for now.

There are other small political groups that are also trying to resist the decline of power pluralism in Ukraine. But groups like Samopomich, the so-called Euro Optimists, Mikhail Saakashvili’s movement, and Nadiya Savchenko’s team are too disunited to be able to stop the slide into authoritarianism.

Local self-governance initiatives and new anticorruption bodies could have had the potential to counter Poroshenko. However, decentralisation reforms have slowed, leaving local communities and leaders dependent on the central government in Kiev.


March 2017: a Kyiv court upholds pretrial detention for Roman Nasirov, Ukraine's former tax and customs chief, who is being investigated on fraud charges. (c) NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The new anti-corruption bodies, namely, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP), might be able to have a more significant impact. NABU is still outside Poroshenko’s influence. Western governments and international organisations continue to support its independence against all attempts to diminish its investigative powers or subordinate it to the General Prosecutor (and thus, to Poroshenko). But in absence of an independent court system, NABU’s effect on good governance and good politics is limited.

NACP was responsible for one huge step forward in fighting corruption: the electronic asset declaration system that has been functional since August 2016. Over 100,000 politicians and officials have already disclosed their and their families’ assets, while in 2017 this number will grow to one million. At the same time, NACP has shown its inability to analyse the now-public declarations, thus decreasing the expected impact of the system. Also, this system does not lead to proper investigations of assets hidden through subsidiary companies in offshores. Also one of the four NACP members, Ruslan Ryaboshapka has recently resigned, saying he cannot agree with the agency’s inefficiency. Another NACP member Ruslan Radetsky is under pressure from the General Prosecutor’s office: last week there was a search in his office. But there was one other effect of the asset declarations: they have provided Poroshenko with a new tool to control politicians and bureaucrats.

Thus, there are no systemic external obstacles to the functioning of the power vertical in Kiev today. Only internal conflicts within the president’s ruling group can slow down (or even revert) the establishment of Poroshenko’s personalist rule in Ukraine.

In recent months, three speakers from president’s entourage — Yevhen Marchuk, ex-KGB officer, ex-presidential candidate and the current Ukrainian participant in Minsk talks, Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine Security Council, and Volodymyr Horbulin, director of National Institute of Strutegic Studies — have promoted giving up political freedoms and the “naïve European dream”, and instead concentrating power in hands of a “strong state”. If these ideas become reality, Ukraine could turn into just another link in the Eastern European authoritarian belt.


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