Europe & the World

Ukraine: Slowly leaving the Soviet universe

26 October 2012
New Eastern Europe Cracow

The October 28 general election is expected to confirm President Yanukovych’s power and the need for renewal of what remains of the Orange revolution. But in the long term, the country’s enduring crisis will lead to some form of normality, argues a Ukrainian journalist.

The post-Soviet world, so painfully built, is now collapsing. Along with its collapse, the fate of Ukraine lies in the balance. Many representatives of Ukraine’s political, media and business elite are gearing up for a long life in the underground. What else can they do? For over two years of being in power, President Viktor Yanukovych has gathered almost all of the power in the country up into his hands. What he has done, together with other politicians from the Party of Regions, cannot be called anything else than a simple coup d’etat.

By changing the constitution he has brought back old privileges to the institution of president, which, incidentally, he currently holds. He has marginalised the role of the government, parliament, and the judiciary, subordinated the defence sector, and switched off the voice of the people and the opposition.

Right now in Ukraine something is being born which resembles Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus. There is only one difference: Lukashenko took several years to become a dictator, while Yanukovych has become one by exploiting the rights he enjoys as president, something which has happened with the complete indifference of Ukrainian society.

All this, once again, confirms the thesis of the analysts who openly say that the Orange Revolution of 2004 was not Ukrainian society’s aspiration for democracy, but for wealth. An irresponsible populist during the “revolution”, Viktor Yushchenko became, for a short time, the idol of millions of Ukrainians.

A person who voted for Yushchenko wasn’t expressing his or her support for freedom, but for prosperity. The mindset of such a voter was simple: since Yushchenko can pay us on time, he can also provide prosperity to Ukraine. Today, the same disappointment, felt a few years ago by those who originally voted for Yushchenko, is now being felt by the poor, marginalised and deprived Yanukovych electorate.

Consumerist states

Why would one compare Yanukovych to the president of Belarus? The analogies are there, but the conclusions will be different. Lukashenko has been ruling Belarus for 18 years now, whereas his “Ukrainian” twin-brother is not likely to stay in power that long. First of all, the Belarusian dictatorship has a very consumerist nature, meaning the regime doesn’t understand what economic reforms are.

The majority of goods are, of course, funded with Russian money. Once the Kremlin decides to stop financing its younger brother, Belarusian society will experience real poverty. And poverty will lead to the collapse of the system. Lukashenko will either get eliminated by those in his closest circles or delivered, by them, to justice.

Ukraine is different to Belarus as it has always supported itself. It is true that we have been getting cheap natural gas, something which was arranged by Leonid Kuchma through reaching an agreement with the former Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin. But this policy has ended for good. Moscow won’t help Kiev in the way it has been helping Minsk. It cannot and does not want to.

At the present stage of the collapse of the post-Soviet world, pains are being felt by Kiev, but the same pains are being felt by all post-Soviet states. These countries can be called consumerist but only in a sense that their elites and societies together still use Soviet resources and means. There are, of course, countries – such as Georgia – where these resources have been exhausted; the government in Tbilisi has been forced to give some freedom to small businesses as well as fighting corruption.

Ukraine will be a relatively normal country

But there are also countries where natural resources are more bountiful. Among them are Ukraine and Russia. Their end, however, is also near, and will be tragic. Yanukovych is simply late. Had he been Ukraine’s president in 1994 (like Kuchma), he would still be governing Ukraine today and we would be wondering when the end of this 18-year old nightmare might be. Even if Yanukovych had become president a little bit later, perhaps in 2004, he would also have been able to enjoy a few years of leading an unlimited authoritarian regime; all until the arrival of the economic crisis.

And yet oddly enough, it was this economic crisis that brought Yanukovych to power. And that is why his regime is protected. However, the age of collapse, which is now fast approaching, requires dialogue and trust, not repression and theft of all that is still left in the country. Yanukovych clearly does not fit into the former category.

Another issue will emerge on the day when Yanukovych’s time is up. Ukrainian society is wrapped up in the straitjacket of paternalism and hasn’t grown up to face its serious challenges. It lacks a sense of civic obligation. The face of this new era could be Yulia Tymoshenko or somebody like her, with this person perhaps creating a political climate in which the debate about reforms will start. These reforms will be taken up by new generations of politicians and economists, although none of them will happen particularly quickly.

Between the collapse of the authoritarian regime and the first reforms, we should expect to wait, at least, between four to seven years. And the reforms themselves will need between three to five years to be implemented. The maths is simple: in about fifteen, or perhaps even as little as eight years time, Ukraine will be a relatively normal country. Only then will it start resembling today’s Poland.

This article comes from the October-December issue of New Eastern Europe