WORLD AFFAIRS.  Although Ukraine may have to endure another three to eight years of Viktor Yanukovych’s misrule—until the presidential elections of 2015 or 2020—the end, fortunately, is in sight, and the challenges of post-Yanukovych reconstruction may be envisioned, at least in broad outlines. Following the extensive institutional destruction wrought by Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, Ukraine will have to be reconstructed from top to bottom. Mere reform will no longer be enough. Even “radical reform” may not quite accurately capture the magnitude of change that Ukraine will have to endure to emerge from the “Yanukovych Ruin” politically energized and rejuvenated, rather than enervated and ossified.

Whether or not Yanukovych remains in office through 2015 or 2020 almost does not matter. The institutional destruction he initiated in 2010 is more or less complete, a brittle sultanistic regime has emerged, and neither three nor eight years of additional misrule will significantly deepen or extend the political damage. Naturally, Ukraine’s economy and society will experience far more destruction from eight years of ruin than from three. By the same token, the likelihood of an oligarch-led putsch or a popular rebellion involving violence will grow the longer Yanukovych and his Regionnaires remain in power. But the political regime he created—sultanism—will not change qualitatively anymore, except to break down.

After his election as president in early 2010, Yanukovych quickly accumulated vast powers, thereby transforming the presidency into a near-dictatorial office, while subordinating the other two branches of government—the Parliament and the courts—to himself and his party. Despite claiming to be a moderate, Yanukovych proved to be a quintessential revolutionary committed to destroying the existing political order as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible. Yanukovych’s power base, the Party of Regions, quickly became the functional equivalent of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev: a vehicle for acquiring power, accumulating wealth, and dispensing patronage. Whatever ideological visions the Regionnaires claimed to have were abandoned, and they became little more than the greedy clerks who once mismanaged the Soviet empire.

Given the evisceration of the non-presidential branches of government and the emergence of the Regionnaires as the party of both power and theft, it was inevitable that Yanukovych would become the focus of increasingly personalized rule, while his closest confidantes would join him in plundering the country. The logical end point of this institutional development was reached in 2012: the triumph of Yanukovych and his “Family,” the reduction of the Rada and the courts to meaninglessness and buffoonery, and the transformation of the Party of Regions into nothing more than an instrument of rapine.

Having attained the “highest stage” of sultanism, such a regime can experience little institutional development in the next three to eight years. Yanukovych and his family cannot acquire more power, the other institutions of government cannot become more meaningless, and the Regionnaires cannot become more rapacious. Because sultanistic regimes are invariably corrupt and conservative, there is no reason to think that the avaricious mediocrities who man the Yanukovych system will be able or willing to sacrifice their well-being to vague notions of reform, especially if reform undermines their power and privilege.

On the other hand, such a deeply dysfunctional regime is a leading candidate for stagnation and decay. And, sooner or later, the sultanistic Yanukovych system will collapse under its own dead weight. Most probably, that collapse will come in 2015, during the next presidential elections, or in 2020, after Yanukovych finishes his second term. The only question facing Ukraine is whether or not collapse will occur peacefully.

It is perfectly possible for the tycoons whose assets are being stripped by the Yanukovych Family to join the forces of coercion and, in the manner of many third-world countries, stage a coup. It is also possible for mass-based violence to occur. It generally does when societies are humiliated and exploited, when oppressors look vulnerable and weak, and when individuals or groups with violent agendas exist. The first two conditions are already present in Ukraine and both will only intensify as the economy continues to stagnate and Regionnaire abuse of the population continues. The third could easily emerge, especially if a brittle sultanistic regime resorts to violence itself. Weak regimes often employ violence in the hope of quashing internal opposition. More likely than not, their violence only induces radically inclined individuals and groups within society to respond with violence.

The collapse of sultanism will mean the collapse of a meaningless Parliament, meaningless courts, and an all-powerful presidency. The Party of Regions will also collapse. Were the Regionnaires an ideological party, some of them might stay and fight. But inasmuch as their primary concern is self-enrichment, they will head for the hills as soon as the writing appears on the wall.

The task facing Ukrainians after the Yanukovych Ruin will be enormous. Inasmuch as Yanukovych and the Regionnaires have effectively destroyed post-Soviet Ukraine’s political institutions, Ukrainians will have to construct a political regime de novo.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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