Ukraine, Belarus, Russia — family reunited?

Ukraine is busy absorbing the news that opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has been arrested under corruption charges. Most analysts consider the process to be politically motivated, and part of a strategy of power consolidation by the ruling Party of the Regions. Dmitri Travin asks if this means that “once-democratic” Ukraine has finally joined her Slavic siblings Belarus and Russia in a retreat to authoritarianism.

Dmitri Travin
8 August 2011

The arrest of Ukrainian opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at the end of last week raises an obvious question: just how similar are the political processes in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the three Slavic states to rise from the ruins of the former Soviet Union?


It is unlikely Yulia Tymoshenko's trial and arrest has
anything to do with corruption. In Russia, Ukraine and
Belarus, lawbreaking is never the exclusive reason why
politicians are sent to prison. Photo: BYuT

In the 1990s, one of the things that most tested the minds of the Moscow and St Petersburg intellectual elite was the unusual nature of Belarusian politics. It was hard to understand why relatively democratic regimes has been established in both Russia and Ukraine, but the openly authoritarian leader Aleksander Lukashenka had come to power in Minsk. It was not only those who thought Lukashenka was a tragedy for Belarus that had trouble understanding; the same was true for those who believed Lukashenka was a example for Russian President Boris Yeltsin to follow. (Yeltsin was himself no model democrat, but nonetheless allowed opposition of various forms of in parliament and was willing to compromise with them). 

From about 2003 — that is, from the moment that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested — the nature of Russian intellectual discourse changed. No longer would a serious observer idealise the political regime that was taking shape in Moscow, and thus the question of Belarusian peculiarity was thus no longer a particular relevant one. In its place came all kinds of analyses of Ukraine, which started to manifest itself as a model democracy when viewed against the wretched background of developments in Moscow and Minsk. 

The Ukrainian question attained particular resonance at the end of 2004, when the Orange revolution began to unfold, and the Opposition in the person of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko were able to come to power on a wave of popular support. The democratically-aligned Russian intelligentsia began to strongly idealise the Ukrainian events, forgetting that very similar events had a place in Moscow in August 1991. Then, a large number of ordinary people came out against the so-called State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP), which had removed the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from power, barricaded Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian national leadership in Yeltsin’s official residence, and had effectively introduced martial rule in the city. 

Then Yeltsin, relying on the support of Muscovites, was able to defeat the attempted coup. The events in Kyiv in 2004 in many respects remind one of those August days twenty years ago. Yet a “resemblance” theory was not entirely popular among intellectuals at the time, most likely because of the fact that, by 2004-5, there was very little left of the democratic sentiment that had been present in the Moscow of 1991. 

The “unique democratism” of the Ukrainian population was instead explained in one of three ways: 

One. Ukrainians, in distinction to Russians, are not an imperial nation. As a result, they are more disposed towards freedom, while in Russia all too many yearn for the times of empire, when the USSR was one of the two military superpowers, thus compensating many of life’s difficulties, poverty and shortages in essential goods.

Two. The issue is not so much imperial ambitions as it is “distance from Dusseldorf”. This was the main expression used to indicate the cultural proximity of one country or another to Europe. It was thought that Ukraine was closer to Europe then Russia (including in a geographical sense), and for this reason it had in greater degree adopted European democratic values. 

Three. The singularity of Ukraine’s politics is explained not by its cultural identity, but by the unique balance and correlation between its various interest groups. In distinction to Russian and Belarusian elites, the Ukrainian elite is split. There is no way that Kyiv could act as a centre of gravity in the same way that either Moscow or Minsk could. Separate groups of influence are based in Donetsk, the centre of Ukraine’s largest industrial region (this is from where current Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych hails). Others are based in Dnipropetrovsk, a similarly strong industrial centre (the origins of Yulia Tymoshenko, for example). Western Ukraine, meanwhile, is an entirely different world, closer “to Dusseldorf” then to other regions of the former USSR. This part of Ukraine is more nationalistic, and thus stands in direct contrast to another important region, the Crimean peninsula, which for a long time was part of Russia, and was only joined Ukraine in the 1950s. 

The Orange Revolution bore a striking resemblance with
the events of August 1991, yet few recognised the
parallels. Russia had, by 2004-5, retreated into rather  
different, authoritarian shell. 

I sense that it is precisely the third point that can most adequately explain any differences that exist between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The complicated mechanism of balancing regional and elite interests provided for the fact that out of all post-Soviet countries, it was precisely Ukraine that for a long time remained the most democratic (or, at least pretended to be the most democratic). It is certainly difficult to talk of Ukraine possessing an anti-imperialistic mentality, giving rise to antiauthoritarian tendencies, since the same logic would also suggest that Belarus should have the same mentality. As, indeed, should all other former Soviet states. Instead, what we clearly see today is that it is only the Baltic states, having joined the EU, who have demonstrated a disposition to the “game according to European-set rules”. 

It is likely that the “distance to Dusseldorf” theory has a certain validity in the case of these Baltic states, since their cultural links to various European countries, were incredibly important, even during Soviet times. But to apply it to Ukraine as a whole (and not, for example, to its Western parts) is quite another thing. Much more likely is that the relative democracy of Ukrainian politics was held together so long as contradictions remained between the interests of Kyiv. Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Lviv (the largest town in Western Ukraine) and Simferopol (the principal city in Crimea). Today the political situation has become substantively different, which has in turn allowed Yanukovych to remold Ukraine in the Russian and Belarusian styles of authoritarian rule and open disrespect towards leaders of the opposition, who they now send to prison. 

It is, of course, possible to interpret the arrest of Yulia Tymoshenko as in the context of a battle against corruption. One certainly cannot discount the possibility that the former Prime Minister was not the embodiment of complete moral integrity. On the other hand, there is also a remarkable pattern of political opponents of authoritarian leaders in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia turning into lawbreakers of one kind or another (while the exposure of corruption in the close company of the rulers often turns out to be an exceptionally difficult and aimless affair).

This is not, one surmises, a case of prosecuting wrongdoing. In Russia, for example, a large number of today’s power brokers have broken the law in one way or another, whether that be by unpaid taxes or privatisation deals. The letter of the law is actually applied, and punitively, only against those who position themselves in direct opposition to the Kremlin or, at the very least, refuse to play by the Kremlin’s rules. Not too long ago, we saw the public defenestration of Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, whose wife, Yelena Baturina, made enormous wealth during his time in office, becoming one of the richest people in Russia. Many suggest, with much justification, that there are very signficant grounds to investigate the two on charges of corruption. However, unlike both Khodorkovsky and Tymoshenko, Luzhkov remains a free man, and there are no indications to suggest that the Russian authorities are about to embark on a serious investigation of the origins of Mrs Baturina’s wealth. None of which is surprising: over the years that Putin and Medvedev were in power, Luzkhov remained a leading and loyal figure in the pro-Kremlin “United Russia” party. 


Lukashenka took advantage of Minsk's undeveloped
intelligentsia class to strengthen his hold on power.
Yanukovych may well find life more difficult in Kyiv, a 
major cultural centre with a traditionally strong
intelligentsia. Photo: president.gov.ua

Yet it seems to me that an investigation into corruption in Yanukovych’s immediate company could lead to some no less interesting legal processes, not least to an investigation of corruption among the Opposition. However, there is no sign of any other corruption case to compete with that of Tymoshenko. Which again leads one to make the assumption that Yanukovych is instead motivated only by a desire to establish a more authoritarian kind of government in Ukraine, in the vein of Russia or Belarus. 

In principle, all post-Soviet countries share similar authoritarian tendencies. The only ones that stand in any way are, on the one hand, the Baltic states, with their more European mentalities, and, on the other, Islamic states. In these latter countries, the regimes are as authoritarian as Russia, Ukraine or Belarus, but the character of the political process is made more complex by the conflict of secular authoritarianism with Islam. This makes Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan subject to a different analysis, and one outside of the scope of this particular article. 

In the Russia, Ukraine and Belarus of the early 1990s, there was a very strong demand for an effective economic system that was able to rescue people from the kind of shortages that had blighted the Soviet Union. That very system appeared just about everywhere in the post-Soviet world; and despite its many shortcomings, the model has been accepted by the population. No one has attempted to bring back the Soviet economic system. Quite the contrary: even Lukashenka has progressively tried to increase the market component of the Belarusian economy.  

On the other hand, there was no correspondingly strong demand for democracy at the time (except, perhaps, in the Baltic states). The slow retreat to authoritarianism began here. And why Belarus turned out to be the leader in this retreat becomes clear when you stop comparing this small country with Russia and Ukraine, and instead compare it with an average Russian region. Even in Yeltsin’s time, there were some regions that had become mini-authoritarian systems; where the regional governor would not allow any opposition or freedom of speech. This was determined in large part by the absence of the thin layer of European-oriented intelligentsia that exists in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kyiv. The provincial Soviet city of Minsk is meanwhile much more similar to other provincial Russian cities than it is to large such cultural centres. Hence why Lukashenka had, even in the mid 1990s, managed to consolidate power in his hands in the same way that many Russian governors had. 

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


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