UKRAINE'S ORANGE BLUES - REGIME INCOHERENCE IN YANUKOVYCH’S UKRAINE

03.06.11


WORLD AFFAIRS:  How can you explain the jaw-dropping incoherence of the Yanukovych regime? They blithely give away the store to the Russians in the April 2010 Kharkiv Accords, but they’re skittish about joining the Russian-led Customs Union. They pursue integration with the European Union, but crudely violate European legal standards by persecuting their political opponents. They declare an anticorruption drive, but retain fantastic villas and shamelessly fix tenders. They pass a law on freedom of information, but constrict freedom of the press. With this kind of record, can anyone be certain that the Parliament’s recently passed endorsement of a free-trade zone with the EU represents an irreversible turn toward Europe?

There are three possible explanations of this incoherence. Let’s look at them, in order of increasing likeliness.

It could be that these aren’t examples of incoherence, but of profound cleverness. Accordingly, President Yanukovych and his buddies know exactly what they’re doing: They’re trying to strike a balance between competing interests and priorities, while following a centrist policy devoted to Ukraine’s interests only. Sound plausible? Maybe for relations with Russia, with the Kharkiv Accords representing Yanukovych’s attempt to make nice with the Kremlin and the skittishness about the Customs Union representing a justifiable fear of the Kremlin’s embrace. But this rationale just doesn’t work for the other examples of incoherence. If you’re serious about the EU, you don’t arrest your former minister of the interior, Yuri Lutsenko, keep him in jail for close to half a year, and respond indifferently to his brush with death during his just-discontinued hunger strike. That’s callous or stupid or both. Nor do you go about harassing former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on trumped-up charges. A clever regime would have dealt with the political threat posed by these individuals by appointing Lutsenko and Tymoshenko as ambassadors to Lichtenstein and Andorra.

Let’s consider a second explanation. Incoherence could be symptomatic of a cognitive inability to recognize contradictions as contradictions. This would bespeak an inability to think logically and to understand that A and minus-A are incompatible. Sound plausible? You betcha. Neither Yanukovych nor any of his ministers is a genius. More important, they are all members of the Donetsk political elite, whose roots extend to Soviet times and whose mentality is still Soviet. Despite incessant Soviet invocations of the Marxian dialectic, the USSR’s planners and policy makers had little sense of contradiction. After all, everything they did was, by definition, correct and every revision of the Communist Party line was, by definition, also correct. That arrogance and ignorance are equally characteristic of the Yanukovych folks. They’re right even when—or especially if—they are wrong. So why worry about contradictions that cannot, by definition, be contradictions?

The third explanation is simplest and probably most persuasive. Accordingly, “the regime” isn’t contradictory, because “the regime” isn’t adopting decisions as a unitary actor. Instead, different factions or power holders within the regime are going in different directions, with the result that “the regime” looks like it’s going in different directions. Thus, the pro-Russian faction goes for the Kharkiv Accords and gives away basing rights in Sevastopol for a song, while the pro-Ukrainian faction tries to move Ukraine away from the Customs Union and toward the EU. The hard-line authoritarians crack down on Lutsenko and Tymoshenko, while the quasi-democrats court the EU and push for anticorruption measures and freedom of information. Sound plausible? Absolutely, but this explanation is also least flattering and most worrisome for Yanukovych. It suggests that, despite having amassed enormous powers, Ukraine’s president is unwilling or unable to keep his subordinates in line. And if Yanukovych really has lost control of a divided regime, its incoherence—and instability—can only grow.

Incoherent regimes are doomed to ineffectiveness and prone to breakdown. Unfortunately for Yanukovych, he cannot afford to sit back and have a beer, while watching the boys duke it out. Ukraine’s economy is a mess, his popularity is almost nil, and the people are no longer afraid to say no to the thugs running the country. Bold choices and radical reform really are necessary. And Yanukovych’s choices are essentially two. He can opt for the status of a corrupt, non-democratic, and permanently backward hinterland of Russia or he can try to join Europe and the world economy as a struggling democracy and modernizing economy. The former choice means becoming another Belarus. The latter choice means becoming another Poland. You can’t be both. Nor can you flip flop back and forth between Russia, authoritarianism, and corruption on the one hand and the world, democracy, and decency on the other. You gotta choose once and for all—not just for the sake of logic, but because the longer you wait, the longer the contradictions fester, the angrier society will get, and the more likely will your regime collapse.

Alexander J Motyl

 

 

 

 

 



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