The post-Soviet world, so painfully built, is now collapsing. Along with its collapse, the fate of Ukraine lies in the balance. President Yanukovych is not a politician suited for his times and will himself soon realise that his authoritarian tendencies are a decade too late.
Many representatives of Ukraine’s political, media and business elite are gearing up for a long life in the underground. What else can they do? For over two years of being in power, President Viktor Yanukovych has gathered almost all of the power in the country up into his hands. What he has done, together with other politicians from the Party of Regions, cannot be called anything else than a simple coup d’etat. By changing the constitution he has brought back old privileges to the institution of president, which, incidentally, he currently holds. He has marginalised the role of the government, parliament, and the judiciary, subordinated the defence sector, and switched off the voice of the people and the opposition.
Right now in Ukraine something is being born which resembles Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus. There is only one difference: Lukashenko took several years to become a dictator, while Yanukovych has become one by exploiting the rights he enjoys as president, something which has happened with the complete indifference of Ukrainian society. All this, once again, confirms the thesis of the analysts who are not driven by romantic ideals but by realistic views of politics. And these analysts openly say that the Orange Revolution of 2004 was not Ukrainian society’s aspiration for democracy, but for wealth. An irresponsible populist during the “revolution”, Viktor Yushchenko became, for a short time, the idol of millions of Ukrainians.
But his reputation of being the country’s “messiah” was not the result of his pro-democracy slogans or promises to imprison those who made fortunes out of bribes and kick-backs. Viktor Yushchenko became a “messiah” because of his competence, when he was still prime minister, to make sure that salaries and pensions were paid on time in the public service sector – something unprecedented in the history of independent Ukraine. This is when the real revolution took place.
Thus, a person who voted for Yushchenko wasn’t expressing his or her support towards freedom, but to prosperity. The mindset of such a voter was simple: since Yushchenko can pay us on time, he can also provide prosperity to Ukraine. Today, the same disappointment, felt a few years ago by those who originally voted for Yushchenko, is now being felt by the poor, marginalised and deprived Yanukovych electorate.
The consumerist state
Why would one compare Yanukovych to the president of Belarus? The analogies are there, but the conclusions will be different. Lukashenko has been ruling Belarus for 18 years now, whereas his “Ukrainian” twin-brother is not likely to stay in power that long. First of all, the Belarusian dictatorship has a very consumerist nature, meaning the regime doesn’t understand what economic reforms are.
The Soviet understanding of entrepreneurship and development clearly still prevails in Belarus, as well as the social policy model based on the assumption that it is the state that protects the citizen. The majority of goods are, of course, funded with Russian money. Moscow has been subsidising Belarus in many different ways: cheap oil and preferential loans. This consumerist financing of the Belarusian regime has been taking place for the last two years.
But once the Kremlin decides to stop financing its younger brother, Belarusian society will experience real poverty. And poverty will lead to the collapse of the system. This collapse will not be accompanied with spectacular social protest but will be rather quiet and led by internal problems: collusions and fights within the power elite, and mistakes being made by the ruling elite. On the other hand, should Russia start having economic problems, which is most certainly going to happen, Moscow will no longer be able to continue sponsoring the Belarusian regime and it will collapse in less than a few months.
Lukashenko will either get eliminated by those in his closest circles or delivered, by them, to justice. Ukraine is different to Belarus as it has always supported itself. It is true that we have been getting cheap natural gas, something which was arranged by Leonid Kuchma through reaching an agreement with the former Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin. Th is gas helped the unreformed branches of Ukraine’s enterprises to survive. But this policy has ended for good. Moscow won’t help Kyiv in the way it has been helping Minsk. It cannot and does not want to.
At the present stage of the collapse of the post-Soviet world, pains are being felt by Kyiv, but the same pains are being felt by all post-Soviet states. These countries can be called consumerist but only in a sense that their elites and societies together still use Soviet resources and means. There are, of course, countries – such as Georgia – where these resources have reached their end; the government in Tbilisi has been forced to give some freedom to small businesses as well as combating corruption.
But there are also countries where the natural resources are more bountiful. Among them is Ukraine and Russia. Their end, however, is also near and will be tragic. It was foreseen in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR when voices could be heard that without economic reforms, the natural resources that he post-Soviet countries would run out in 20 or 25 years. And today, that collapse of the post-Soviet space is starting to take place.
Time is up
Yanukovych is simply late. Had he been Ukraine’s president in 1994 (like Kuchma), he would still be governing Ukraine today and we would be wondering when the end of this 18-year old nightmare might be; just as we are wondering: when Lukashenko’s dictatorship will end? Even if Yanukovych had become president a little bit later, perhaps in 2004, he would also have been able to enjoy a few years of leading an unlimited authoritarian regime; all until the arrival of the economic crisis.
And yet oddly enough, it was this economic crisis that brought Yanukovych to power. And that is why his regime is protected. However, the age of collapse, which is now fast approaching, requires dialogue and trust, not repression and theft of all that is still left in the country. Yanukovych clearly does not fit into the former category.
Another issue will emerge on the day when Yanukovych’s time is up. This is the most interesting question and one for which there is still no single clear answer. Ukrainian society is wrapped up in the jacket of paternalism and hasn’t grown up to face its serious challenges. It lacks a sense of civic obligation. And for that reason alone, Ukraine will not be Georgia. It will be more like a Georgia if it were governed by an opposition who doesn’t want to take up any reforms. We are awaiting a time of terrible populism.
The face of this era could be Yulia Tymoshenko or somebody like her, although this person may perhaps create a political climate in which the debate about reforms will start. These reforms will be taken up by new generations of politicians and economists, although none of them will happen particularly quickly.
Between the collapse of the authoritarian regime and the first reforms, we should expect to wait, at least, between four to seven years. And the reforms themselves will need between three to five years to be implemented. The maths is simple: in about fifteen, or perhaps even as little as eight years time, Ukraine will be a relatively normal country. Only then will it start resembling today’s Poland.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Vitaly Portnikov is a Ukrainian journalist with Radio Svoboda and the independent television channel TVi.