oDR

Ukraine and Belarus: the dawn of change?

Belarus_Ukraine_0.jpg

Rigged elections and corruption in post-Soviet states such as Belarus and Ukraine are hardly news. Ukraine’s shift towards authoritarianism has highlighted new similarities between the two countries. But might they both eventually move towards a new bright dawn? Yegor Vasylyev wonders

Yegor Vasylyev
16 October 2012

Ukraine and Belarus together occupy territory of about 900 000 square kilometres and have a population of around 55 million people. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that this vast area is still terra incognita for most in the West.

Some stereotypical perceptions of the countries prevail in analytical papers, political discussions and public opinion. There is a significant difference between the more or less informed views, but the beacon notions are the same. The countries are often seen as sort of quasi-nations, left over from the ruins of the Soviet Union, overshadowed by Russia, and with little real idea of what to do.

Black holes for many, they are regular topics in political and academic discussions: will they go East or West, how could/should their choices be influenced and why is progress towards democracy so stuck? It is supposed that their societies were unprepared for democratic choice and that, as nations, they did not really have a strong desire for independence.

'Ukraine and Belarus did not follow their Central and Eastern European neighbours into NATO and the EU, first and foremost because the differences between them as countries and those multinational organizations were too great.'

The truth might be, however, that endless debate about their directions has yielded endlessly wrong answers because the countries were just not going anywhere. This is because, from the very beginning of their most recent independence, they, in essence, could not go anywhere. 

Ukraine and Belarus did not follow their Central and Eastern European neighbours into NATO and the EU, first and foremost because the differences between them as countries and those multinational organizations were too great. Whatever the communist or socialist post-war experience of their neighbours, they were not part of the Soviet Union and did not have Soviet social and political patterns entrenched to the extent they were in Ukraine and Belarus. And whatever the Soviet experience of the Baltic nations, they were always distinct enough – in language, culture and society - from the Russians who dominated the Soviet, and prior to that – Russian, Empire.

The post-Soviet rule of thumb

These patterns have proved to be absolutely decisive. The politics and governance of both Ukraine and Belarus are very different from those of their CEE neighbours, who are themselves by no means free of malpractice. This statement might not look exactly new, but its meaning is often undervalued. 

The rules and the people governing politics in Ukraine and Belarus emanate from the Soviet Union and the very special immediate post-Soviet period. It would be hard to find anything more at variance with European standards of good governance. Institutional changes took place, new constitutions were adopted and elections were held, but the countries remained in the grip of closed networks and the patterns of the past. The legacy of the double-bottomed Soviet system of standards is that things are almost always not what they seem and words not what they appear to mean.

A lack of accountability in politics and disparity between the words and deeds of politicians are not uncommon in many countries, but in the post-Soviet space political declarations really serve only to mask the true interests of the elites: unchecked power and control over the country’s financial flows. Whoever the president -  Kravchuk, Kuchma, Yushchenko or Yanukovych and, always, Lukashenko – the elites are a closed circle of various orbits with the interests of the kingpins and confidants at the core of any political process.

'The legacy of the double-bottomed Soviet system of standards is that things are almost always not what they seem and words not what they appear to mean.'

‘Double-bottom’ is the main rule of the post-Soviet space, allowing for the deployment of any concept, theory or political pledge – if it suits the moment, the listeners and the interests of the speakers. For these elites the question is not of moving toward the ‘East’ or the ‘West’: they are concerned only with the balancing game enabling them to maintain control over their home turf.

Civil society institutions: a bogus system?

It is well known that in post-Soviet Belarus democracy has been in constant decline since independence in 1991. During the same period Ukraine has been a quasi-democracy. It was a fairly typical post-Soviet semi-authoritarian state until 2005; the years 2005-2010 then saw a democratic breakthrough. But this was effectively a fake. The President’s power vertical was dislodged by a change of balance between the elites and even the vote was only technically fairer: the same people and clans still dominated politics.

Post-Soviet patterns pervade everything, including the rather tired notion of ‘civil society building’ through the development of ‘civil society institutions’.

Ukraine: according to IRI [US International Republican Institute] poll, only 1% of Ukrainian respondents were members of NGOs. The number of NGOs is constantly increasing. There are by now more than 70,000, but their actual effectiveness in empowering civil society is more than disputed. In an insightful and resonant article on the topic [in Ukrainian] the Ukrainian Weekly magazine Tyzhden called civil society institutions a bogus system, doomed to imitate results, because it is impossible ‘to grow flowers on concrete’.

'Post-Soviet patterns pervade everything, including the rather tired notion of ‘civil society building’ through the development of ‘civil society institutions’.

The magazine is traditionally critical of the Ukrainian authorities, so its argument has come a long way from traditional post-Soviet official paranoia about the third sector. It is far from being alone in this assessment: a leading opposition journalist Sergey Rakhmanin called for [in Russian] a real civil society to replace the ‘fake little world populated by skilled grant-seeking professionals’.

Belarus: ‘civil society building’ in Belarus, where the regime is even harsher, is more distant still from its presupposed aims. Joerg Forbrig, a director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy, points out that real regime-fighters struggle to receive the necessary support, whereas bogus structures enjoy it lavishly – and are equally ineffective. Dmitry Uss, a former candidate in the 2010 Presidential election, who spent months in jail following protests against vote fraud, echoes this point [in Russian] with far-reaching conclusions about the collaboration between the funders, the fake opposition and the Belorussian authorities.

Forgotten path

That said, apart from specialised texts, it is often forgotten that both Ukraine and Belarus had a history before the Soviet Union – and even before the Russian Empire. For many years they, along with Poland and Lithuania, were part of a mighty confederation, the Commonwealth. According to historian Andrzej Sulima Kaminski, its partition ruined not only the country, but also the most developed (on a par with Great Britain) civil society of the time. 

Joseph Marshall in his book ‘Travels through Holland, Flanders, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Lapland, Russia, the Ukraine and Poland in the years 1768, 1769 and 1770’ called Ukraine ‘a noble country’, with ten times the liberty among its citizens that he had seen anywhere else in Russia. The ‘old inhabitants were very free, and had great equality among them’ and many of his interlocutors did not speak Russian.

The case for their close cooperation, never fully abandoned, became popular between the two world wars. Jozef Pilsudski and his followers nourished ideas of Prometheism and Intermarium – freedom from Russia for the non-Russian nations and the creation of a confederation from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It was in part shared, and in part regarded with suspicion, by Ukrainian and Belorussian freedom fighters. Following Poland’s European recovery from post-WWII dependency and control from Moscow, ideas reminiscent of these old aspirations are coming to light once more.

Strive for change

The current near-authoritarian governments of Ukraine and Belarus have put them on a very similar path, balancing their kleptocracies between Russia, Europe, the US and China.

They might (in the case of Belarus, have already) become heavily economically dependent on Russia, and are apparently not to join the European Union in its current model. But public opinion in both countries is swinging in precisely the opposite direction. 

'If anything was genuine in their democratization, it was the public protests against blatant election fraud, successful in Ukraine 2004 and unsuccessful in Belarus 2006 and 2010.'

It is no less important (and often ignored) that the social desire for change in both countries is bringing them closer together. If anything was genuine in their democratization, it was the public protests against blatant election fraud, successful in Ukraine 2004 and unsuccessful in Belarus 2006 and 2010. That was real civil society: ordinary people (not NGOs), at other times too busy with their everyday chores, poured on to the streets to claim their rights.  

The polls show widespread dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in both countries and wide-ranging support for change. According to Belarus’ National Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research data, 77.3% of respondents in Belarus think that the country is in need of change. The most recent Parliamentary elections and the voters’ effective boycott of them show that for the first time the will of the regime was opposed, albeit passively, by the majority.

The main elements of the insubstantial political and economic models in Belarus and Ukraine are essentially similar, and there can be no improvement until these elements are changed. This could mean that the countries are unlikely to stay as they are for long. Social change could be drawing closer: the power verticals are exhausted and the whole post-Soviet elite-based model is on the brink of collapse. Formal changes, such as those introduced in Ukraine in 2005, might not satisfy the demand.

Is there any way out of the bog?

The moment when the issue of which direction Ukraine and Belarus will take actually becomes topical is yet to come. In the eternal ‘East or West’ dilemma, it could be that closer cooperation with each other and with their democratic neighbours, to whom they do not need to prove their European identity, will gain the main ground.

'The moment when the issue of which direction Ukraine and Belarus will take actually becomes topical is yet to come.'

So far, both are mired in the post-Soviet bog and many think there is no way out of it. But one might risk the assertion that post-Soviet-style governance can only lead into an impasse, and that this rotten political and economic system will reach its endpoint, as the Soviet system did. It is far from certain that changes will bring a real breakthrough and won’t get stuck in the patterns of the past. But the next generation is likely to have much more in common with its EU neighbours, than its predecessor. Old ideas might be revived, though old grievances and post-Soviet habits could also hamper their realisation.

A common view is that Ukraine and Belarus are failed nations whose old post-Soviet elites and murky corrupt governance face a real crisis of confidence. It didn’t happen in 1991, but they might yet be approaching the dawn of change. 

US election: what's going on in Trump's must-win states?

Our editor-in-chief, Mary Fitzgerald, is on the ground in key US battleground states – follow her on Twitter @maryftz for live updates.

There's never been more at stake. But the pandemic has kept many foreign journalists away. Hundreds of international observers who normally oversee US elections aren't there.

Can we trust the polls? What's the blanket media coverage not telling us? Hear Mary describe what she's seeing and hearing across the country, from regular citizens to social justice activists to right-wing militias arming themselves for election day.

Plus: get the inside scoop openDemocracy's big 'follow-the-money' investigation – breaking soon – which lifts the lid on how Trump-linked groups are going global with their culture wars.

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 29 October, 5pm UK time/1pm EDT.

Get oDR emails A weekly roundup of political and social developments in the post-Soviet space. Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData