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One and a half years before the election: Is Ukraine dreaming of Belarus?

Ukraine’s political scene is ripe for a newcomer. The public demands an uncompromising anti-corruption crusade, releasing the country from the oligarchs’ grip, reforming the public service, boosting the social infrastructure and rising welfare standards.

November 21, 2017 - Yegor Vasylyev - Analysis

Image by European Union 2016 - European Parliament

Good fences make good neighbours. The severed Crimea, more than 10,000 killed and almost 2.4 million displaced during the war in Donbas have built a sky-high barrier between Ukraine and Russia. At the same time, according to data by the Rating sociological group (also used further in this article), 56 per cent of Ukrainians have a warm attitude towards Belarus – topped only by Poland at 58 per cent – and 38 report a neutral one. There seems to be more in this than Slavic brotherhood. Is it possible that Ukrainians see Belarus as a role-model? If so, what implications might this have for Ukraine’s future?

The Belarusian (semi-) dream

Kyiv’s politically active and pro-Western middle class might not like it, but there are Ukrainians who not only regard Belarus as a neighbour they need no fence with but also adore its way of living. For many in the country, ridden by instability, rampant corruption and nationwide political conflicts, 23 years of Belorussian status quo just look good. According to the polls, Belarus is the country Ukrainians trust most (up to 60 per cent). They like its ruler – 63 per cent have a positive view of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. It is no wonder given that most Ukrainians (54 per cent) prefer economic well-being to a democratic system of governance.   

Informal interviews with Ukrainians from different steps of the social ladder confirm what one might draw from sociological presumptions. In their view, the positive side of Belarus ends far from a mere non-recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea. There is a social contract with the authorities there, guaranteeing, unlike in Ukraine, more social justice and a smaller gap between rich and poor. There are no oligarchs affecting state affairs and there is less corruption, better social infrastructure, roads, hospitals and kindergartens. No doubt objected to by some Belarusians, this is the Belarusian dream some Ukrainians are prone to.

They see the Belarusian model, with the GDP growth, averaged at 6.3 per cent in 2003-2013 as stable enough, even despite recent economic deterioration. There is no secret in how it is built, though. A domestic trade-off of civil rights and geopolitical choice in favour of integration within the Eurasian Economic Union has resulted in a firm administrative grip over the quasi-socialist market economy and weak civil society. At its core, it has an incredible level of Russian subsidies, first and foremost in energy. According to Belarusian economist Ales Alachnovic, they total around 15 per cent of GDP annually. The IMF estimated Russian general support to Belarusian economy at 100 billion dollars for the period 2005-2015.

Stagnation of the unreformed state-dominated economy and decreases in world prices for the main Belarusian commodities are still not sufficient to shake up the social accord. In 2017 the GDP resumed its growth, and the authorities exert effective semi-authoritarian control over the political situation in the country. Even if, as some Belarusian analysts suppose, cheap Russian oil might come to an end for Belarus in a couple of years, political destabilisation at the national level is not likely to happen. Any risk of organised protests is immediately addressed by comparatively mild repressions, like the February-March country-wide rallies against new social parasites tax. In addition, the regime builds up relations with China, toys with a patriotic narrative of Belarusification and is involved in rapprochement with the West.

Launching the meeting of the Central European Initiative in the summer Lukashenko lauded Minsk’s multi-vector foreign policy, avoiding an “artificial choice between the East and the West” and stressed that Belarus shall play a more active role in securing regional stability. However, a new Helsinki process hosted by Minsk, as envisaged by the Belorussian leader, is by and large a fantasy. While some, like Peter Sijarto, Hungarian foreign minister, hail Belarus as an ideal bridge between the East and the West, Belarusian balancing is by all means relative. It includes, for example, not only “oil for kisses”, but also modernising the army under the Russian support like contracting of 12 SU-30 SM fighters and Zapad-2017 joint war games.  

In sum, Russia simply will not allow the Belarusian economy to fall flat one day, and Belarus will not go West in a dramatic U-turn. It will carry on with bridge-building while remaining heavily dependent on Russia economically and politically. For the West, though, there is no other option than to respond constructively to the apparent progress in re-balancing.

Ukraine’s pains and gains

While for many Ukrainians Belarus is an island of stability and socially-oriented economics, they hold a critical view of the state of play in their homeland.

85 per cent of Ukrainians agree that the country is in a state of chaos and 75 per cent think it is in a state of collapse. As social anxiety accrues, they blame the authorities – 78 per cent think that the situation in the country is developing in the wrong direction and 76 per cent disapproves of Petro Poroshenko’s presidency. What is not surprising is that most Ukrainians worry about the war, personal well-being and corruption.

The war in Donbass is smouldering. The Minsk accords, despite recent attempts of revitalisation by the “Macron formula”, might have exhausted their implementation capacity. Moreover, the Ukrainian parliament will never get a popular mandate for the constitutional reform on the terms of DNR/LNR chieftains, the one that will suffice for Russia. A proposal for UN peacekeepers to take the border in Donbass under their control is unlikely to materialise.

Amidst concern about deteriorating living standards and high utility bills, two-thirds of Ukrainians point to corruption as the main reason for the current socio-economic pains of the country. Ukraine can flaunt its brand new anti-corruption legislation and institutions, but not so much its implementation. The internecine struggle between the new anti-corruption prosecutor, new National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the old state prosecution service do much to discredit it.  The judiciary is indeed a stonewall – anti-corruption cases flop in the unreformed courts and, even according to the Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov, only two per cent of the investigations end up with court verdicts. The e-declarations of officials have triggered yet another shock-wave in society about their vast wealth, but they have not met the consequences.                         

Foreign investment remains pale. De-oligarchisation – the eradication of the oligarchs’ influence over politics and the economy – has not happened.  According to the Dragon Capital investment company, gross oligarch assets in 2016 equal 11 billion dollars, or about 12 per cent of that year’s GDP. Worse, however, is that it undermines statehood. Political scientists single out two pillars of oligarchisation: the crooked judicial system, and syphoning off the state enterprises’ money from the state budget through notorious schemes. This alone has created an ongoing boa constrictor’s grip over Ukraine.

Opposition MPs denounce the alleged informal alliance between the president and kingpin oligarch Rinat Akhmetov that buttresses the coalition in Verkhovna Rada, coined the Rotterdam Plus Coalition (nicknamed after the coal tariff formula: coal price at the port of Rotterdam plus the price of delivery to Ukraine), allegedly lobbied by the oligarchs, that is, Rinat Akhmetov. The Kyiv Post newspaper highlighted the positive coverage of presidential activities by the oligarchs’ TV channels. This might give a clue about where most of the oligarchs’ eggs will go for the 2019 election.

However, there are reforms and success stories. Reform of the state-owned giant Ukrgazvydobuvannia is a flagship example. The company is responsible for 75 per cent of the national gas production and new management is said to have brought back three billion hryvnias in a single year. There is macroeconomic stabilisation. The Prozorro system has gained much credit for introducing transparency to public procurement, the banking sector has experienced a comprehensive clean-up and there was a breakthrough in securing Ukraine’s energy independence from Russia. The army, de-facto demolished during the Yanukovych years, is on the path to becoming a capable military force. Decentralisation, perhaps the most complex of all reforms, is also ongoing. Reforms mostly take place under effective pressure through conditionality and expertise – the Support Group for Ukraine is the best example – from Western donors, mainly the EU. The European Commission has hailed Ukraine’s progress, although recently more criticism has fallen down from the EU Delegation to Ukraine.

The most salient issue, though, is whether any attempt has been made to reconstruct an informal vertikal, like the one of the ousted former president Yanukovych. Ukraine’s post-Soviet governance has always been about effective but pernicious informal patterns that prop up inefficient official institutions. In the post-Soviet era, the grey cardinals and smotryashie (looking-afters), a pattern, borrowed from the criminal world, are known for their informal influence over spheres of public governance and state enterprises to secure revenues by means beyond the official ones. The president’s critics claim (and he denies) that smotryashiye bask in the corruption rent exerting influence over state regulation agencies, enterprises and public institutions, including the defence supplies and the judiciary. Others assert that the current system is closer to a chaotic merry-go-round of otkaty (rollbacks) of Yushenko’s times, lacking certain rules and coherence.

All in all, it is true that there is more reform activity than ever since 1991, but it is also obvious that the public believes the authorities still do not deliver enough. If Ukrainians long for peace, social welfare and taming of the oligarchs, is the landscape set for Belarusisation?

A call for a strongman?

Unlike Belarus’, Ukraine’s foreign policy – Poroshenko’s favourite, is devoted to signal that the country strives to become a part of the West, not a bridge.  However, with the 2019 election impending, the question in the air is whether, amidst public distress, it is possible that an anti-European low will follow the pro-European ebb, as happened in neighbouring Moldova.

Notwithstanding a lack of explicit prospective EU membership, still as much as half of Ukraine, for now, stripped of its most pro-Russian regions, is resolved to join the EU. Indeed, there is a very deep memory that when Donbas ruled, the country had awkwardly attempted to walk the third-way path, but in reality, this policy was employed as a veil for a self-indulging kleptocracy by the president’s family and their coterie, finally mutating into a pro-Russian force.

Favouring the EU and NATO underpins the country’s conflict with Russia and makes a great difference with the mood in Belarus, where the population by and large support the authorities in their bridge-building, de-facto being the part of the East. Also, Ukrainians value their free elections and political competition, though distorted by the whopping influence of the oligarchs and associate it with the pro-European choice.

Ukraine’s political scene, with the level of confidence in the current leaders remarkably low,  is ripe for a newcomer. Most Ukrainians are likely to hew to a social contract, might even be an “illiberal democracy” or a national hardliner who will be able to deliver on social and anti-corruption policies. At the same time, he or she must also be a democratic choice and somehow a pro-European one. By this the public demands first and foremost an uncompromising anti-corruption crusade, releasing the country from the oligarchs’ grip, reforming the public service, boosting of the social infrastructure (including comprehensive road reconstruction) and rising welfare standards.

This opens the door for a charismatic candidate, a non-participant in the usual political scene, a strongman who will vow to maintain order, stifle the oligarchs enact real judicial and law enforcement reforms. That is, someone finally makes the state work, in other words, exactly what many Ukrainians see as merits of Belarus. This is true, albeit there is no-one fitting this description. 

Therefore, the sociologists take Poroshenko as the front-runner for the elections. Polls put him slightly behind Yuliya Tymoshenko, his chief rival, both for the first and the second round of the elections. With a third of voters, undecided, sociologists’ belief is built on his rich campaign resource: his 2014 voters whose disillusionment would still not be enough to make them cast the vote for a former gas princess, prime-minister and political prisoner. The current president will beat an anti-Russian drum, a welcome political message in a country ridden by war, along with an ambitious claim to approach joining the EU. Tymoshenko will be condemned by his camp as a populist from the past, capitalising on the hardships the country is undergoing in the process of reforms.  

This makes the issue of other candidates vital. Yuriy Boyko and Vadym Rabinovych, as pro-Russian as possible in the current situation, are the ones appealing to the south-east. Oleh Lyashko – a mega-populist, seen by many as serving various oligarchs’ ends, is another contender more than welcome by Poroshenko’s team for the second round. The current president is sure to beat any of them there, as millions of former Donbas and Crimea voters will not take part.

Thus, the focus is on the potential third force – playing both on the territory of Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, Anatoliy Grytsenko, once an MP and a defence minister, and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a pop star currently lecturing on democracy at Stanford, who qualifies as a new liberal. Both (if the latter will stand) are likely to pose as outsiders, probably employing the anti-elite slogans close to the ones sketched above. For the president, who is convinced about his own re-election, they are to drag votes away from Tymoshenko, but not to get into the run-off, where they may win. In any case, Ukraine, by all means, should strive to avoid more Maidans, and make no drama of a possible change of leader.

Ukraine cannot sit on the fence or pose as a bridge – the East, that is Russia, is adamant in seeing at least part of it as its sphere of influence, and moreover, the majority of its own population in the borders under its de-facto control want to go West. Nor can Ukraine turn away from the road of reforms, as it lacks resources such as the hydrocarbons of Azerbaijan or the vast subsidies of Belarus to sustain itself. It is a silver lining in the Ukrainian clouds: there is simply no other way than to reform or demise, as the vultures are circling and Russia is all too eager to celebrate a failed state.  

All said, despite all the grit and recent diplomatic tensions with its Western neighbours, Ukraine is more united and firm on its legs as an independent state as ever before. It is yet to find its path, however. The Belarusian dream of those Ukrainians who nourish it will not come true: there can be only a unique Ukrainian one, a capable democracy, that can escape the post-Soviet mind set. It has the greatest enemy within: oligarchisation and corruption. Even if buoyant under pro-European governments, so far this has not led to a Europe-fatigue, but a search for a pro-Western strong-hand, which, paradoxically, might result in an even more pro-Western liberal course. The hope is that Ukraine’s agile civil society will buttress the inchoate national unity and support the development of effective institutions instead of ruinous informal patterns under any elections result.

Then, if this finally make reforms irreversible, Ukraine might cope.

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a British Chevening Scholar in 2009-2010, following five years in the Ukrainian civil service. 

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  • Earl Harley

    Amazing what a sense of hopelessness will do for perception.

  • Voros Rukmini Xanathor

    As it happens, I can suggest 2

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