WORLD AFFAIRS. Start with the president’s overriding strategic interest: survival by reelection. Back in 2010, when he was elected, it was power and wealth. Now, after imprisoning opposition leaders, closing down the free press, and otherwise delegitimizing himself, Viktor Yanukovych wants only one thing: to be reelected in 2015. Not because he has plans for the country. But because he has plans for himself: he knows that the alternative to power is exile or, more likely, jail.

Continue with the fact that the only way Yanukovych can induce anybody to vote for him is by polarizing society. Conclude with the fact that, even if Ukrainian society is transformed into two hostile camps on the brink of civil war, there is still no way that a leader as bad as Yanukovych could ever get elected in a free and fair election. Fraud is therefore inevitable, and a violent crackdown in the aftermath of defeat or mass protest becomes the inevitable Plan B.

So there you have it. In order to stay in power, Yanukovych will almost certainly do the following: first, transform Ukraine into a country consisting of two irreconcilable parts, thereby guaranteeing that it is unstable and ungovernable. And, second, he’ll support one side against the other with coercion and, in effect, attempt to rule with martial law.

If that happens, Ukraine’s conversion into an authoritarian sultanate will be complete. Worse, since the country’s survival and integrity as a state will then depend entirely on Yanukovych and his dubious ruling abilities, it’s quite possible that the sultanate will collapse and that either Ukraine will descend into civil conflict or its eastern provinces will be annexed by a Russia fearful of spill-over and mass refugees.

After all, having polarized Ukraine in order to rule it by force, a president of Yanukovych’s questionable caliber will never be able to “un-polarize” it, at least not in the short run.

Ukraine’s tragedy consists in being misruled by an inept leader and thuggish party that will not relinquish power voluntarily. Western and Ukrainian analysts frequently concoct scenarios of how the opposition might win the elections and return to power. Those scenarios are well and good—and I’ve spun many of them myself—but their ultimate plausibility rests on one overriding factor: the willingness of Yanukovych and the Regionnaires to abdicate if they lose. Democracy can work only if power-holders who lose elections step down. If they don’t, or announce they won’t, elections become meaningless rituals, and democracy, along with all hope of democratic change, becomes a pipe dream.

At that point, when systems become clogged and refuse to countenance normal change, “extra-democratic” action becomes virtually inevitable. When regimes become thuggish, they generate thuggish responses: to put it another way, violence begets violence. Perhaps not immediately. If Yanukovych assumes dictatorial control over a divided society, the losers are likely to respond with confusion, apathy, and despair. Very quickly, however, some losers will decide they want to be winners. They’ll survey the regime and its forces of coercion and conclude that it’s led by an illegitimate leader with only tenuous support among a demoralized army and militia. Other losers will conclude that, having lost it all, they have nothing left to lose. Anomic violence will lead to organized violence and organized violence will destabilize the regime and, in all likelihood, the country itself.

I have no doubt that Yanukovych and the Regionnaires don’t care about Ukraine’s continued existence as a country several years from now. By then, they will have accumulated enough lucre to be able to live comfortably in Europe. Once le déluge begins, they’ll just board their private jets and abandon the country to its fate. 

So how is such a dreadful outcome to be avoided? If one can no longer rely on Yanukovych and the Regionnaires to act in the country’s interests, then everything will depend on the population, the opposition, and the West. Ukrainians will have to resist Regionnaire calls to split into two warring factions and, instead, recognize that, if they don’t hang together, they’ll hang separately. The opposition will be able to promote consolidation if it presents itself as a serious democratic alternative with concrete proposals for improving people’s everyday lives. Europe can reduce the likelihood of violence by holding its nose and signing an Association Agreement with Yanukovych. Finally, both Europe and America can make sure Yanukovych leaves before the deluge by giving him a place to hang his hat. The West has provided refuge for dictators in the past. Why not for a sullied sultan in the future? 

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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