Over the last decade, Ukrainian politics has been characterized by its volatility. The Orange Revolution brought hope of a rapid democratization, although these hopes were soon dashed because of divisions among the governing coalition. Finally, in 2010, a population that was tired of the political instability elected Viktor Yanukovych as president. Although there were concerns about the rollback of various rights and freedoms, Yanukovych’s promise of stability was convincing for the majority of the electorate.
This issue of Russian Politics and Law provides a range of viewpoints on Ukrainian political dynamics over the last few years. Some authors see the 2004 events as a true revolution, while others argue that it was not one because the country’s political system did not undergo any kind of fundamental transformation. The extent to which the authors see the Yanukovych presidency as potentially threatening to Ukrainian democracy also varies.
In “Change, Transition, or Cycle: The Dynamics of Ukraine’s Political Regime in 2004–10,” Yuri Matsievski sets the agenda for the issue. He argues that democratization inUkrainehas followed a zigzag course. He situates his analysis of Ukrainian politics in the international political science literature on regimes and revolutions. He describes the Ukrainian political system under Kuchma as a pyramid of informal, institutionalized rules for exercising power. Though the president was at the top of the pyramid, he had not succeeded in fully subordinating other members of the political and economic elite, allowing for a degree of political pluralism that resulted in the establishment of several competing political camps financed by various financial–industrial groups.
Matsievski then turns to the question of whether the Orange Revolution was truly a revolution or even a real change of political regime. Here, he is firmly in the camp of those scholars who argue that the events of November–December 2004 were by no means a revolution. He argues that they were not even a coup. Instead, he describes these events as a regular rotation of elites. Because the opposition elites used public protest as part of their campaign strategy, the outcome appeared to be the fall of the old regime. In reality, the positive results of the change of leadership brought about by the Orange Revolution were modest and in some respects temporary and did not amount to a change of political regime.
Under Yushchenko, the regime shifted from Kuchma’s oligarchic authoritarianism to a defective democracy that was lacking in political participation, political competition, and adherence to constitutional norms. The new leaders were unable or unwilling to rein in corruption in the political system and spent more time battling each other than conducting sorely needed political reforms. Like Kuchma’s team, Yushchenko and his colleagues focused on using their power to extract profits rather than improve governance. Matsievski argues that despite a few superficial reforms, the political system continued to be dominated by informal rules, rather than formal institutions.
At the same time, Matsievski believes that the limits on political centralization that prevented the consolidation of authoritarianism under Kuchma and hindered Yushchenko’s efforts to reform the political system will also prevent the establishment of a power vertical under the Yanukovych presidency. The same structural and procedural limitations that hindered movement toward democracy in 2005–10 will also prevent a slide toward authoritarianism from going too far.
Matsievski spells out five factors that will hinder the consolidation of authoritarianism under Yanukovych. First, the powers of the president are much reduced compared to the Kuchma period. Second, freedom of the press has been institutionalized to a much greater extent over the last five years. Third, the state has neither an effective apparatus of compulsion nor a professional bureaucracy. Fourth, societal cleavages prevent any sense of national unity from emerging. And fifth, neither the West nor Russia would benefit from having an authoritarian regime in Ukraine. As a result, while Ukraine will continue to suffer from administrative arbitrariness and corruption, it is not threatened by authoritarian consolidation.
In “Post-Soviet Gravitation: On the Results of the Presidential Elections in Ukraine,” Andrei Ryabov largely concurs with Matsievski’s assessment. He argues that despite the tone of the discussion in the press at the time, the 2010 presidential election was not actually a choice between a European and democratic path of development and the preservation of the post-Soviet model. Both leading candidates were actually representatives of the post-Soviet model who were focused on the division of resources rather than on national development. Yushchenko, in contrast, had tried to implement the political de-Sovietization and Europeanization of Ukraine, at least in the realm of foreign policy. He failed because most Ukrainians did not want to see themselves as a postcolonial nation. Furthermore, most Ukrainians had lost faith in their country’s ability to become truly European in the near term.
In this context, most voters understood that both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych had authoritarian leanings. The difference is described by one of Ryabov’s friends: “If Tymoshenko wins, things will be bad, and for a very long time. If Yanukovych wins, things will be very bad, but for a short time.” In this context, a majority of the electorate preferred a relatively weak president who will lead a government beholden to various lobbying interests to a strong populist president who might succeed in establishing an authoritarian state. In other words, Ryabov is essentially arguing that Ukrainian domestic politics under Yanukovych is likely to resemble the political situation under Kuchma.
Mikhail Minakov’s article, “The Language of Dystopia: The Ideological Situation in Ukraine,” examines Ukrainian political discourse. Minakov shows how this discourse has come to be dominated by a language that facilitates state control over a static confrontation between regionally based conservatisms, each rooted in its own historically conditioned sense of what Minakov calls ressentiment. “Ressentiment is a component of collective memory, a sort of pain of remembrance whose cause is articulated in terms of some actual, inescapably but unjustly co-present Other.” The author argues that as long as society is focused on past trauma, the state can continue to exercise control over the country. The best way out of this situation is to strengthen nonconservative political forces and social institutions that promote rationality.
The thesis that there are certain basic continuities toUkraine’s political trajectory over the last decade is reinforced in Sergei Tigipko’s article “Ukraine’s European Choice: What It Means for Russia.” Tigipko was an also-ran in the 2010 presidential election before becoming vice-premier for economic issues in the Azarov government. He argues that for Ukraine, political and economic integration with the European Union is an immutable strategic choice. At the same time, Ukraine will continue to pursue a multidirectional foreign policy that should allow Russia to see Ukraine’s leaning toward Europe as an opportunity rather than a threat. Tigipko sees Yushchenko’s foreign policy efforts as focused less on bringing Ukraine into Europe as on tearing it away from Russia. Instead, he argues for Ukraine’s potential as a bridge between Russia and Europe. To this end, he calls for a balanced foreign policy that pursues close relations with both.
Writing in a Russian publication, Tigipko argues for a close partnership between Ukraine and Russia, but one that is based on relative equality. He points out that integration that is based on a Russian takeover of key Ukrainian industries is unacceptable to Kiev. He goes on to claim that Russia needs to change its mentality, to stop treating Ukraine as a lesser country that can be ordered around by Russian leaders. He concludes by noting that Ukraine has already made its European choice and that in the end, Russia will also inevitably make the same choice.
Vladimir Pastukhov continues the theme of Ukraine’s relations with Russia but shifts the focus to domestic developments. In “The Ukrainian Revolution and the Russian Counterrevolution,” he argues that the Orange Revolution fundamentally transformed Ukrainian society. This argument is directly opposed to the first two articles in this issue. He notes that in 2010 Yanukovych is a fundamentally different politician from the one elected in 2004. Although his initial policies focused on restoring relations with Russia, the course he is now pursuing is actually focused on promoting Ukrainian national interests. To this end, Pastukhov argues that Yanukovych has gained much more than his counterparts from his initial agreements with Moscow.
In the second half of his article, Pastukhov makes the argument that Russian leaders who were haunted by the threat of a Ukrainian-style revolution implemented a series of measures that made the Russian political system dysfunctional in much the same way as the Ukrainian system was dysfunctional prior to the Orange Revolution. Just as the Ukrainian political system became rational, with conflicts being resolved openly, the Russian political system ceased to be able to react to challenges by seeking to prevent any possibility of conflict. The likely result is an increasing threat of revolution, the very thing Russian leaders were trying to avoid. The lessons Pastukhov draws from Ukrainian politics are that an unstable political system increases competition, active measures to protect against revolution are likely to cause one, and that the best way to avoid a revolution from below is to carry out a revolution from above.
In “Orange Pills for Russian Diseases,” Igor’ Pantin takes issue with Pastukhov’s analysis. He opposes Pastukhov’s description of the Orange Revolution as a revolution, pointing out that Yushchenko’s excessive focus on Ukrainian nationalism led the majority of the population to turn to Yanukovych in the 2010 election. What’s more, he thinks Pastukhov exaggerates when he thinks the Orange Revolution led Russian leaders to initiate measures to strengthen their power. Pantin also takes issue with the lessons Pastukhov draws from the Ukrainian experience. He points out that Russia already had experience with an unstable political system in the 1990s—which was not a great time for Russia. He also does not think that a revolution from above is capable of solving Russia’s political problems. For Pantin, the only solution is a political movement from below that can renew Russian governance without revolution.
The first year of Yanukovych’s presidency has shown the wisdom of Matsievski’s assessment. While there have been some efforts on the part of the government to restrict freedoms and to limit political challenges to the regime, the Ukrainian political system remains far more open and contested than that of Russia or other post-Soviet states (other than the three Baltic states and Moldova). At the same time, the ease with which Yanukovych returned to power after seemingly being completely discredited during the Orange Revolution shows that that event was a revolution in name only and did not result in fundamental political or social changes in Ukraine.