UKRAINE'S ORANGE BLUES - CRACKING DOWN AND CRACKING UP

10.01.11


WORLD AFFAIRS.  The dialectic was alive and well in Ukraine in 2010. On the one hand, the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych appeared strong, moving decisively toward authoritarianism. On the other hand, it appeared weak, manifesting a breathtaking serial incompetence.

The transition from democracy consisted of three steps.

First, Yanukovych concentrated vast power in his hands, effectively creating a “sultanistic” regime in which all subordinates are accountable to him alone.

Second, the Party of Regions seized control of the parliament, the central government, almost all provincial and district governments, and the “strategic heights” of the economy.

Third, the regime assaulted institutional sites of potential opposition, curtailing university autonomy, limiting press freedom, encroaching on NGOs, and persecuting the opposition.

Weakness, ineptness, and bungling are direct consequences of these authoritarian trends.

Sultanism promotes administrative irresponsibility, bureaucratic infighting, and risk avoidance, as subordinates become sycophants who know that their livelihoods depend on the sultan and his whims. Sultanism is also incompatible with policy effectiveness, since contemporary societies and economies are too complex for any one leader to guide.

One party’s domination of government promotes corruption even in the best of circumstances. When that party resembles the mafia, absolute power, to misquote Lord Acton, corrupts more than absolutely, and government loses even its residual ability to facilitate entrepreneurship, creativity, and innovation.

Cracking down on civil society is a surefire way of reducing information flows to rulers and, thus, of enhancing their incompetence. Repression also corrodes regime legitimacy, thereby making it increasingly dependent on coercion. As Talleyrand pointed out many years ago, however, one cannot sit on bayonets — at least not without tearing one’s pants.

The Yanukovych regime’s serial incompetence manifested itself most strikingly — and embarrassingly — in three easily avoidable policy disasters.

The first was the April Kharkiv accords with Russia, in which Ukraine’s rulers couldn’t tell the difference between business (the price of gas) and strategy (the basing of the Black Sea Fleet). Only a tyro would confuse or couple the two. And only an incompetent tyro would agree to an excessively high gas price and an excessively low base rent in exchange for Sevastopol and possibly the Crimea.

The second was the Entrepreneurs’ Rebellion over the Tax Code. The draft code had been the target of sustained criticism and entrepreneur-led demonstrations throughout Ukraine since the middle of the year. When the business people announced they would assemble in Kyiv’s Independence Square, the site of the Orange Revolution, on November 22, the sixth anniversary of the uprising, only an obtuse regime could not have foreseen trouble. (Incredibly, Yanukovych’s advisers said he hadn’t read the code, thereby demonstrating both the sultan’s limitations and his sycophants’ inability to lie imaginatively.) The thousands of entrepreneurs who assembled peacefully for almost two weeks forced Yanukovych to revise the code and decisively demonstrated that the people still had the power to stop the bulldozer regime.

The third mistake was the persecution in late December of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko. Before the harassment began, most Ukrainians would have agreed that both politicians were washed up. Now Tymoshenko and Lustenko look like political martyrs, and their popularity can only grow. Yanukovych, in contrast, will look punitive at best and maladroit at worst.

The coming months will likely see both continued crackdowns and crack-ups. With its legitimacy in tatters and economic prosperity nowhere on the horizon, the regime will have no choice but to use coercion to elicit what social scientists call “societal compliance.” After all, when your soft power is nil and the Putin option of neo-imperial, macho-man chest-beating is unavailable, you have to use, and sit on, hard bayonets. But, as the Entrepreneurs’ Rebellion showed, society is in no mood to comply: people know there is strength in numbers, and they know the numbers are on their side. Once the pensioners, housewives, and coal miners join the students and the entrepreneurs, even club-swinging and tear gas won’t help.

As the regime weakens, expect intra-elite tensions and defections to increase. The tushki (the defectors to the ruling coalition) will go first; as parliamentary elections and the 2012 soccer championship approach, fair-weather friends like Speaker of Parliament Volodymyr Lytvyn and reform-oriented oligarchs like Serhii Tihipko and Rinat Akhmetov will be the next to jump ship. Yanukovych will then go the way of all weak authoritarian rulers: he’ll wrap himself in the flag of patriotism. With 2011 marking 20 years of Ukraine’s independence, he’ll have ample opportunities to play the great statesman and nation builder. It’s even possible that the anti-Ukrainian Minister of Education Dmytro Tabachnik will be fed to the wolves. If that doesn’t work, Yanukovych will have to make direct overtures to the democrats. If those in jail can get their act together with those outside (a big if, to be sure), Yanukovych’s future — and Ukraine’s — will be in their hands. Let’s just hope that, this time, Viktor Yushchenko stays on his bee farm.

Alexander J Motyl



Ukrayinska Dumka

IN THE LATEST UKRAYINSKA DUMKA

Great Britain The Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain has many branches throughout the country. Select a branch below to find out more information.