Thursday, February 24, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Yanukovich Strengthens Vertical but Loses Power, Kyiv Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 24 – President Viktor Yanukovich’s success during his first year in office in building a presidential system in Ukraine has come at a high price – the end of many of the links between the Ukrainian government and the population and the alienation of the Ukrainians from their government, according to a leading Kyiv commentator.

In the current “Zerkalo nedeli,” Vadim Karasyev describes this as “the paradox of [Yanukovich’s] first blitzkrieg” – the construction of a apparently more efficient and stable power vertical but one that exists without the active participation of the Ukrainian population (

By setting up a presidentialist system in which he is “the dominant player,” Karasyev continues, Yanukovich has thereby ended “the coalition, pluralist and politically competitive system” that had existed under his predecessor, one that often led to political crises but that reflected the divisions within the Ukrainian population.

Parliamentary politicians have been reduced in status, along with the role of the prime minister, while Yanukovich and the administrative elite, including ministers, governors, and bureaucrats” have emerged as the new “vertical” for the president and for “major business groups.”

As Yanukovich himself has made clear, this is “the first stage” of a process, “the goal of which consists in the establishment of a stable system of administration” that guarantees those who have come to power “a strengthening of their ruling positions and the preservation of the status quo for a lengthy period of time.”

This means, Karasyev argues, that Yanukovich and his ruling elite “intend to transform the regime of competitive democracy” which Ukraine had experienced into one of “administered democracy” by establishing control “over elections and political actors” and creating a political system into one of “direct presidential rule.”

Having achieved a measure of progress in that direction, however, the Kyiv commentator continues, Yanukovich has encountered a problem: Ukrainian “society has become still more alienated from the powers that be, from elites and politicians, [indeed,] “must more alienated that was the case under the previous regime.”

Indeed, Karasyev says, “civil society has assumed a position of harsh opposition to the powers and to V. Yanukovich personally.” But because the parliament has “ceased to be a representative organ,” coalitions and parties have lost much of their former role as sements of “a system of contract obligations between the powers and society.”

As a result, Yanukovich’s promotion of “the administrative strengthening of the powers has led to their political and social weakening,” especially since personalist rule works only if the president has the support of 60 or more percent of the population as in Belarus and Russia. In Ukraine, Yanukkovich’s support has been around 30 percent and is falling.

A major reason for the decline in public support for him is that after the elections, Yanukovich has lost “the symbolic status as the leader and ideologue of the South East” and been forced to present himself as something broader but inevitably thinner with regard to many issues.

In these circumstances, Karasyev says, the question inevitably arises: “on what hidden reserves can presidential regimes operating only on an elite-oligarchic contract survive?” The answer, he suggests, is that they can do so only by pursuing “a strategy of indeterminateness,” one that allows them freedom of action but sooner or later costs them broader support.

“For the support of a system of authoritarianism [in Ukraine],” the Kyiv writer argues, “even in its soft variant, there are neither economic, force, nor ideological resources.” Moreover, the oligarchs are not going to be supporters for long because their interests and those of the state and society are at odds as well.

And because of the way in which Yanukovich came to power, his ideological program ultimately will not provide much support. His predecessor Viktor Yushchenko pushed the idea of the construction of a national Ukrainian state. Yanukovich has been left with promoting the notion of “a denationalized” state in its place.

Given that goal, Yanukovich “has tried to play the role of a moderate state building, a pragmatic nationalizer,” but under Ukrainian conditions, Karasyev arues, this is “a very narrow niche” and consequently is fated to fail unless the state can “disorganize possible interest groups” that would inevitably oppose it.

“Over the course of the last 20 years,” Karasyev continues, “the political system and political regimes have changed [in Ukraine], but these changes have concerned [first and foremost] relations among elites but have not touched the state itself.” As a result, most state institutions have remained essentially “soviet and repressive.”

The events of 2004, often called the Orange Revolution, led to the installation of Yushchenko as president, but “unfortunately,” their democratic content did not succeed in institutionalizing itself. As a result, Yanukovich won election as president. But what he has done since sets the stage for more changes.

According to Karasyev, “2011 could turn out to be a strikingly political year for the future of Ukraine,” given the weakening of the regime even as it presents itself in the form of “the state machine” as stronger and more efficient. And that in turn highlights another aspect of Ukrainian life that many ignore.

“From an institutional point of view,” Karasyev writes, “democracy in Ukraine has become less, but mentally Ukrainians have become closer to democracy. Society already understands that freedom is not something ephemeral,” something that occupies “a secondary position” in the values of people.

Indeed, it may prove to be the case that the most importance aspect of the first year of Yanukovich in office may be the following: “As a result of its Soviet-renaissance policy, the contures of a real order of the take are step by step emerging. This order of the day is being formed not by political technology … but by a real social consensus.”

That consensus, the Kyiv commentator argues, revolves around “a demand from the state of an anti-corruption, liberal and legal policy and the de-monopolization of the economy” and of the promotion of “economic, social and political freedom.”

If Yanukovich and his team continue to act as they have in the past year, they will be forced to use force to control the situation “because the economic and social resources of post-Soviet statehood have exhausted themselves,” and Ukrainian society has been driven to the edge of exhaustion and patience.

Consequently, Yanukovich’s call for “a five year plan” of reforms “could become “five years of social and political instability” in Ukraine, a period in which perhaps there could emerge a constitution that creates the basis for a broader social-political contract and the limitation of what increasingly appears to be “a Hobbesian Leviathan.”

According to Karasyev, two parties are emerging: “the party of democracy and law and the party of power and privileges.” The former up to now has played the role of critic rather than opponent of the latter, thus assuming a role that is defined by the party of power. But that could change, the commentator says, and Ukraine could change as well.

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