WORLD AFFAIRS.  President Viktor Yanukovych’s main claim to fame is political stability. Say what you will about the rollback of democracy and the absence of economic reforms, his supporters say, but you gotta admit that Ukraine has become more stable in the year since he’s been president. After all, Yanukovych is the undisputed boss, he gives all the orders, his minions follow them, and things get done. That’s stability, and stability is good, right?

The argument couldn’t be more wrong.

All authoritarian leaders — and Yanukovych is no exception — believe that the more power they have, the better, the more stable, the more predictable things must be. But the historical experience of dictatorships conclusively shows that the hyper-concentration of power is actually a guarantee of political, social, and economic instability. The Soviets took the case for centralization to its logical conclusion, constructing a totalitarian polity and a centrally planned economy — and you know how that ended. The fact is that democracy is not just nice. It’s also more stable and more effective than dictatorship.

Unsurprisingly, Yanukovych the would-be authoritarian stabilizer will succeed only in becoming a Terminator and destabilizing Ukraine — and here’s why.

First, although Yanukovych is the undisputed master, he is woefully inadequate in his understanding of modern societies, economies, and polities. Absolute rulers can be successful if and only if they are philosopher kings, and Yanukovych, a tough kid from a tough neighborhood with two suspect degrees from fly-by-night educational institutions, is not. Knowledge underload and information overload will wear him down very quickly.

Second, and far more important, Yanukovych has, by grabbing all the power, effectively destroyed Ukraine’s political institutions. The Parliament is a joke; the courts are a joke; and the cabinet — along with all the ministries of government — is merely a tool of the president. But here’s the rub. Modern states and societies cannot be run without effective institutions, even if leaders are philosopher kings. Modern states and societies are too complex for any one person to do the job. Sultanistic rule á la Yanukovych might have worked in Ukraine back in the fifteenth century, but not in the twenty-first.

Third, and even more important, by declaring himself sultan and destroying institutions, Yanukovych has provided government administrators with irresistible incentives to engage in buck-passing, evasiveness, obstructionism, toadyism, and corruption. Place yourself in the position of some cog in Ukraine’s vast bureaucratic machine. You know that your job depends entirely on being in good graces with your boss, whose job depends on being in good graces with his boss. And so on, all the way up the food chain. Will you assume responsibility for anything? Of course not: you’ll pass the buck. Will you take a stand? No, you’ll be evasive. Will you help your colleague get the job done? Hardly: far better to trip her up, as that makes you look better. Will you speak your mind to your boss? Never: you’ll always suck up. Will you be honest? Not a chance: you know that, since you could be fired at any minute, you need to steal as much as you can when you can. Add to the mix the fact that Yanukovych’s Regionnaire thugs have seized control of the government apparatus, and its incompetence and venality are sure-fire bets.

Fourth, and most important, a hyper-centralized system consisting of a misguided leader, absent institutions, and thuggish party hacks cannot be reformist, effective, or legitimate. Genuine reform is impossible, because it serves no one’s interests. Ineffectiveness is inevitable, because running a complex society in so primitive a fashion is certain to result in terrible mistakes. Nor will you learn from your mistakes, as the mechanisms for providing the leader with good information — functioning institutions and responsible administrators — are missing.

Legitimacy is also out of the question. Big bosses may be feared, but they are never loved. And, when their mistakes become endemic, they always come to be despised and ridiculed. (It took Yanukovych only a few months in office to become a laughing stock.) The result is that he is doomed, at best, to become a second Leonid Brezhnev — the Soviet leader who presided over the inglorious “era of stagnation” and probably made the USSR’s collapse inevitable. The Ukrainian president should ask himself just why Yanukovych jokes are now as popular as Brezhnev jokes used to be in the 1970s and 1980s.

Needless to say, such a system is not stable. It looks stable, but only because the boss is the only one speaking and all his underlings pretend to be listening. And the Yanukovych system is especially prone to instability, because the Ukrainian president is not content, as Brezhnev was, with doing nothing. Yanukovych wants to consolidate one-man rule as quickly as possible by proactively destroying institutions. But the unintended outcome of institutional evisceration is a vicious circle: his rule will only get weaker, which in turn will lead him to strike out at and further weaken institutions. As his regime becomes increasingly ineffective and he becomes increasingly illegitimate, people will increasingly lead their lives outside the state. Some will emigrate; others will “drop out” into the shadow economy and parallel social institutions. Still others will resist: some actively, most passively, in the time-honored manner of the weak and powerless — by slacking, lying, stealing, and pretending.

At the rate it’s decaying, the Yanukovych system will be on the verge of collapse in a few years. Like some recently deposed Arab potentate, Yanukovych will smile, wave his hand, and look powerful. His acolytes will smile, wave their hands, and look adoring. In reality, he will be presiding over a house of cards. At some point, a spark — some crisis, some serial stupidity, some act of self-immolation — will bring it all down and his adoring acolytes will be the first to terminate the Terminator.

Alexander J Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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