WORLD AFFAIRS.  President Viktor Yanukovych’s rhetoric has recently taken a scary turn. At a February 2nd Polish-Ukrainian economic meeting in Warsaw, he spoke like a bona fide revolutionary committed to forcible change from above. To be sure, given his decidedly casual relationship to language, words, and meaning, the Ukrainian president may not have understood just what he was saying. On the other hand, he just may have. And if he did, Ukraine — and the rest of the world — should be prepared for a significant increase in coercion, instability, and conflict.

All revolutionaries share several characteristics. First, they insist on the need for total change. Second, they claim to be empowered by some higher force — the class, the nation, the race, or God. Third, they insist that the opposition must be destroyed — for the good of the revolution and the higher force that inspires it. And last, they blame their own failures on traitors. Look at the writings of Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and the Ayatollah and you’ll find all these features. Why? Because they go together. If you believe you have the right to transform a society completely, then you must appeal to some abstract force for legitimacy, as real people would never opt for total change. If you believe you know exactly what must be done to improve society, then all who oppose you must be enemies of the revolution and of the higher force you represent. If, despite your superior wisdom, things go wrong, then the fault cannot be yours. It must be the work of devious wreckers.

Consider Yanukovych’s comments in light of the above:

(1) The need for total change: “The country must be changed, it must be changed; its face must be changed. We must change our approaches by, as they say, 180 degrees. And we’ll do it.”

(2) Empowerment by an abstract higher force: “The Ukrainian people is wise — it knows what to do … We get our stimulus from the Ukrainian people.”

(3) Opposition must be destroyed: “When such a strong, crushing blow is delivered to the bureaucratic system, it obviously reacts with like force.”

(4) Failures are caused by traitors: “They lie without conscience, twisting facts; with the money they stole they hire hirelings in Europe, the USA, and within the country … and confuse the whole world and Ukrainian society.”

If we take Yanukovych’s comments seriously (and since he’s president, we should, shouldn’t we?), then they amount to nothing less than a call for “revolution from above” — that is, total change initiated and carried out by the state in the manner of a “great leap forward.” Such a goal should worry Ukrainians and the rest of the world, not just because revolutions from above are always coercive and always violent (after all, people always resist and their resistance must be crushed) — but, no less important, because they do not work. The three prime examples of revolutions from above are Stalin’s, Hitler’s, and Mao’s. Each of them changed his country completely — and almost destroyed it, and its neighbors, in the process. If this is what Yanukovych has in mind for Ukraine, then heaven help it.

Now, I’m sure that Yanukovych’s people will say that I’m overreacting — that the president was just talking tough. Could be. On the other hand, his alarmingly total appropriation of super-presidential power was anything but rhetorical. And, if Yanukovych just wants to talk tough, why talk tough like a fanatical revolutionary? Why not talk the tough talk of reform, democracy, and liberalism? Why not state that 180-degree shifts are necessary in a few areas — such as government corruption, rent-seeking by highly placed state functionaries, and outright theft, graft, and shakedowns by the president’s buddies — and that society, culture, education, business, democracy, and other policy areas need adjustments? Maybe by 10 degrees, maybe by 20 or 30, maybe even by 90 — but surely not by 180. Why not eschew the language of “crushing blows,” and instead speak calmly of providing incentives to change behavior? Why not admit that even the president can make mistakes? Why not, finally, fess up that mendacity is not exactly foreign currency to his cronies? (Are you listening, Hanna Herman?)

What’s behind this outburst of revolutionary talk (especially as Yanukovych’s foreign minister has just published an article castigating Yulia Tymoshenko for being — you guessed it! — a revolutionary)? It’s possible that Yanukovych is desperate, having come to realize that his presidency is a complete failure and that, unless he does something really big quickly, he will soon follow in former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s footsteps. It’s also possible that sultanism has gone to Yanukovych’s head. Now that he’s concentrated all the powers of the state in his own hands, he may believe that, like Robespierre, he’s been anointed by destiny to bring happiness and virtue to humanity, even if cooler heads in his own cabinet are against it. Finally, it’s possible that Yanukovych has decided that his presidency is beyond salvaging, but that tough-guy talk just might salvage his image.

Take your pick. Alas, whatever the interpretation, it is Ukrainians who will pay the price for Yanukovych’s gross mishandling of their country.  

Alexander J Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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