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Ukraine 2013: The same old games?

January 15, 2013 - Yegor Vasylyev - Bez kategorii



Following tense parliamentary elections, the change of government and a pre-recession economic landscape, will Ukraine’s 2013 be mired in the same old post-Soviet games in politics and governance?

The games of politics and European integration

Western politics is widely believed to be about the three “I”s – Ideas, Interests and Institutions. In Ukraine, however, it is only about two: Individuals and their Interests. The two exceptions when ideas did play a role happened during the short period of a national-democratic movement between 1988 and 1991 and the events of 2004 Orange Revolution. The first, however, was limited to certain regions and tainted by turncoats and KGB infiltration. In the second, the course of events unveiled the fact that ideas were employed to camouflage the usual Interests of the by-then usual Individuals.

The pillars of post-Soviet governance – a business-politics nexus; cronyism; and patronage, all based on concealed (in some cases not very thoroughly) informality – is what the country has become quite accustomed to. All the celebrities of the political stage – Viktor Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, Viktor Yanukovych and Arseniy Yatseniuk – have made their way upwards in recent years by staying close to these pillars. Meanwhile, ideas and institutions remained nothing else than a veil for the post-Soviet power game.

“Post-Soviet” aptly describes the country’s governance today. Disguised by ideology, Soviet standards of the abuse of power and corruption have simply resurfaced following the split of the Soviet Union albeit in a different form. The Moral Code of the Communism Builder was replaced by the so-called democratic values. A new façade emerged, but with the old interior, compiled of practices and decision-makers from the past.

“European integration” has become quite a valuable element of this façade. Since 1994, under the plethora of declarations, committees and action plans, Ukrainian presidents and governments have focused all their attention, in practice, on the post-Soviet political game. In fact, their European Union integration efforts have never been anything else than an imitation. One should only delve into the practicalities of life in Ukraine to see how the foundational concepts of the EU, from the rule of law to fair competition, are applied in the country.

Unfortunately, the Association Agreement with the EU, initiated on March 30th 2012, seems to have also fallen prey to this game. The post-Soviet point of view on its implementation would be rather obvious. Oligarchs and clans, who have effectively established control over the country’s Soviet-built industry and, to some extent, agriculture, will take the “icing” of the free trade. The rest of the “cake”, namely, the political part and other demanding provisions, such as those on competition or public procurement, would be preferred to stay on paper.

The EU is divided on signing the Agreement, which will hardly do any good under the current administration, but might tie Ukraine to Europe geopolitically and economically. However, it is also true that as a country, Ukraine has no other choice but rapprochement with the EU. The reforms needed for progress in EU-Ukraine relations are exactly the ones the country so badly needs. And the Agreement, be it addressed with genuine political will, is of crucial importance for the country’s future; European aspirations, which, in their essence, are shared by the majority of its people. The most pressing dilemma in the EU's relations with Ukraine is how to address the current government’s reluctance for political and economic reforms without thrusting it and the country along to the braces of Russia.

The New Cabinet of Ministers announced on December 24th 2012 is more like the “president’s family club” than a public government. The further on into Yanukovych’s presidential term, the more the perspective of the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union looms for Ukraine. This path seems to have no other advantage besides a suitable gas price for the unmodernised industries of the oligarchs, but spares the unwilling president from the headaches of democratic reforms. The result of the multi-year EU integration game is that the country’s geopolitical choice is hostage to a very narrow circle of individuals and their interests.

The game of civil society building

But who can help citizens if their government is just a network of individuals preoccupied with their own interests? The statistical boost in the number of NGOs and outspoken, self-proclaimed civil society activists is understood by observers as a tendency of civil society’s increasing participation.

However, the debacle of the civil society builders during the recent parliamentary elections is much more telling. The best known civil society activists and journalists have remarkably failed in getting elected, and not because of falsifications. Their obsession with PR-stunts, blogging and showmanship is perhaps no less than that of the politicians, but they also seem equally remote from the needs of the public. Apparently, the game-like activities and campaigns are far from being able to provide capable action to represent the interests of, let alone empower, citizens in the harsh reality of modern Ukraine.

The much publicised civil campaign Chestno (Honestly) led by Oleh Rybachuk, the former head of Viktor Yushchenko’s Presidential Administration, vowed to filter out “dishonest” candidates at the elections, but produced no substantive results. Civil councils, hastily arranged at ministries and state administrations, drastically lack any substantive effect and thus seem to interest only their members. Even the latest round of the so-called “December First Initiative”, supposedly a voice of the country’s “wise men”, went largely unnoticed.

New game or …?

Still, the apathy of the former “Orange” voters and supporters is gradually giving place to a search for a new force to assuage the frustration with the usual games and lack of genuine representation of their interests. Various manipulation and vote-buying techniques have backfired in many constituencies in Central and Western Ukraine, and especially in Kyiv, highlighting the limited output that post-Soviet political technologies can deliver.

The right-wing Svoboda party garnered more than two million votes and won constituencies as far East as Poltava oblast. This is widely seen as the major surprise of the elections. The most important part, however, is that judged by many experts to be typical – either a protest-vote or a far-right party – Svoboda seems to have a chance of becoming atypical in terms of post-Soviet games.

Being a marginal party with the support of 0.36 per cent in the 2007 snap parliamentary elections, Svoboda always claimed Ukrainian nationalism as their ideology. The Ukrainian media became used to castigating the party for alleged anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tyahnybok officially stated that the party is not anti-Semitic and its official programme and campaigning does not include anti-Semitism or xenophobia. Instead, they centre on an anti-oligarch, pro-Ukrainian and pro-middle class agenda claiming to address the real needs of ordinary Ukrainians. In foreign policy, the party vows to prioritise cooperation with Ukraine’s “natural allies” – the Baltic and Scandinavian countries, Poland and in perspective – Belarus.

This approach has increasingly found ground with the voters. Currently, the most interesting point is whether it will follow the signs of sliding from traditional nationalism, usually called a minority faith, into a direction of a moderately nationalist, conservative party of the law and order type. In which case, could this be the contours of a new political landscape in Ukraine, in which Batkivshyna’s (Fatherland) programme might serve as a base for a liberal conservative party, with a percentage of the communists possibly reflecting the base for the new left?

State of play

For the moment, Ukraine is being balanced rather than integrated anywhere; and run rather than governed by the president of a post-Soviet semi-authoritarian type, who is obsessed with the extension of his authority and family assets, and hardly anything else. He was brought to the presidency by the oligarchs, who might feel uneasy about his increasing embedment in the office and power, but are thriving economically. The latest cabinet is stuffed with “family” and “family-friendly” people led by Sergiy Arbuzov. Unlike his predecessors, the first deputy prime-minister might play the primary role, with Prime Minister Mykola Azarov staged to take public blame for economic hardships.

Ukrainian society favours change and, in general, a pro-European course, but is rather disconnected from the authorities and has no other way of being heard. The ever deteriorating standards of living are traditionally disregarded in the game-scripts written in high cabinets. The president can always count on at least 20 per cent of the overall vote produced mostly from his stronghold, the regions of Donbass and Crimea. And although the majority are eager to vote him out, at the same time, they equally dislike the oligarchs and are in search of a new force.

The president’s usual political opponents come from the same script, being more different in form than in essence, and the one perceived most dangerous by the president is kept behind bars. Svoboda, recently seen as marginal and regionally constricted, has managed to leave its niche. Presumed to have no chances of winning, it might be welcomed by Yanukovych and maybe Russia as the most suitable opponent for the second round of 2015 presidential elections.

In summary, this provides for a somewhat surreal state with anaemic institutions, a distraught and impoverished population, which is hitting far below its potential weight. Here, it is worth mentioning that according to a recent study by the German Gesellschaftfür Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Ukraine, surprisingly for many, received the highest acclaim from western European visitors to the EURO-2012 football championships.

The current version of the country’s governance, run by Soviet-inherited individuals and their corresponding interests, can’t seem more outdated. One might say that the nation is at a crossroads. Historically, this is nothing new. The outcome will depend on how capable and ready it is to proceed in politics, European integration and civil society in place of the ongoing post-Soviet games.

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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