(This is a guest post by Antoaneta Dimitrova, associate professor at the University of Leiden. We have edited for style.)
As the protests in Ukraine descended into violence in recent days and weeks, commentators focused on Russia’s geopolitical game and the EU’s incapability to counteract it. It’s hard to doubt Russia’s leadership was seriously perturbed by the Orange revolution and is determined not to lose influence in Ukraine again. It also seems clear that Putin’s intention in urging President Yanukovich not to sign the long negotiated Association agreement with the EU has been to encourage Ukraine to join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union instead. According to a friendly source, a treaty for Ukraine is currently under preparation in Moscow. Further speculations that Putin and more recently Medvedev have urged Yanukovich to use violence are still unproven, if plausible, and smack of the justifiably forgotten science of Kremlinology.
Having studied how the EU and Ukraine interacted while preparing their abortive Association agreement, I think that apart from geopolitics, there are important lessons in the institutional changes in Ukraine. I have been trying to understand both why the EU’s approach went wrong, and what the EU might be able to do in the future, should some compromise to end violence be found. Preferably as soon as possible.
In retrospect, the reforms that Yanukovich started introducing in 2010 were clearly intended to strengthen what has been known from Russia as ‘the vertical of power’ and to weaken the key non-presidential institutions of the Parliament (Rada) and the judiciary (Malygina 2010)
For some time, I and others thought there was little difference between the oligarchic domination of the Ukrainian political system under former President Yushchenko and Yanukovich’s rule. I now think we were wrong. Informal rules were as important as formal ones in that system, as Malygina rightly noted, which has prevented outside observers from getting a grip on what was going on in Ukraine.
As Melnykovska and Schweickert (behind pay wall) explained in an insightful article in 2008, the Ukrainian system was a closed system; a vicious circle of oligarchic power in which access to state power allowed oligarchs to secure their economic interests and enrich themselves, which in turn allowed them to increase their political power. This seemed to be the paradigmatic example of post communist state capture, showing how bad it could get. The old oligarchic system exhibited some signs of what Carothers (2002) termed (PDF) ‘feckless pluralism.’ Carothers argued that the regimes he labelled as fecklessly pluralistic experienced one change of government after another, but the state remained weak and politicians unable to solve the problems of society and the economy. Ukrainian elites seemed to have taken their cue from their Russian peers, which as Holmes and Krastev showed in their book on Russia, neither needed nor tried to engage with the electorate at all. What worked in Russia, thanks to oil and other natural resources based wealth, did not work in Ukraine, as is evident from its current balance of payments problems. Citizens were angry, but helpless and focused their hopes for change on the EU.
Yet, as we have seen in the last couple of weeks, even the oligarchic pluralism seems to have been better than an authoritarian system under a President intent on preserving his own power at any cost. The system changed in gradual but definitive steps after came to power as President in 2010. In contrast to Yushchenko’s uneasy cohabitation with Parliament, Yanukovich had support from the Party of the Regions, which had a parliamentary majority. He was able to initiate political and constitutional changes that transformed the relatively pluralistic oligarchic system into a strongly neo-patrimonial and much less pluralistic one, with his own ‘Family’ in all key positions, a toothless judiciary and a weakened parliament. For example, when he reorganized the Council of Ministers, Yanukovich gave positions to competing groups of oligarchs, strengthening his own position as the arbiter between them.
All this helps explain the so-called fiasco in Vilnius and the EU’s current inability to make any impression on or influence Yanukovich. It is even more relevant to understanding why the protesting citizens are so angry. Their protests are not any more about the EU, but about the path which Ukraine has taken and which Yanukovich seemed to cement with his last minute rejection of closer ties to the EU.
Various reports from the Vilnius summit itself further suggest that his refusal to sign the long negotiated Association agreement should be understood as driven by personal rather than national interests. One diplomat apparently commented that it appeared as if Yanukovich had nothing in common with the EU leaders, as if he was coming from another planet.
European politicians and diplomats and Commission civil servants were not so naïve as to have failed to notice the important role of oligarchs as informal veto players in Ukraine (Dimitrova and Dragneva 2013) However, a number of important oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, Dmytro Firtash and Viktor Pinchuk had recently been rumoured to be favor establishing closer trade ties to the EU. What the EU underestimated was not only Russia’s determination to never let Ukraine out of its orbit, but also, more importantly, the personal interests of the President and his son and other members of his circle.
It wasn’t hard for Putin to understand Yanukovich’s motivations; Russian elites have been engaged with their own capture projects. Yet in the run up to Vilnius, many European politicians seemed to think it was all about whether the President was prepared to let Ms Tymoshenko go abroad for treatment or not.
The EU – both its technocratic and its political actors – does not understand this model of politics and seems to have invested little energy in understanding what drives Yanukovich. However, there arguably is not much that the EU could have done, as it is not in the business of personally bribing politicians to sign agreements. It would probably have done no good to make Ukraine a more generous financial offer as it would have come with reform plans attached, which would have made it far less attractive for Yanukovich and his Family.
What are the implications of these domestic factors, if the various actors involved find a way to stop the violence? The most important priority for reform – and the protesters clearly know this – would be constitutional change, to avoid such concentration of power in the presidency ever again. To make it stick, rule of law will be needed, so that any new constitutional legislation adopted would be upheld. The European Union and the US would have to invest in the training of civil servants and judges and support for peaceful civil society initiatives, as they have done in the Balkans. The EU would have to reconsider its focus on exporting its own regulations and prioritize rebuilding Ukraine’s political system instead. But that all concerns problems that we have not reached, and may never reach. For now, we can all only hope a diplomatic solution and a compromise is found before a full blown civil war erupts. In the end, it is possible that Yanukovich will find himself in the position of Romania’s late dictator Ceausescu. Violence to one’s own people often doesn’t pay.