Standoff in Ukraine: Mafia Regime vs. Mobilized Citizens

At first glance, the world appears to be coming to an end in Ukraine: President Yanukovych is still in power, he’s signed a neocolonial deal with Russia, and he approved a whole raft of repressive legislation on January 16th. But wait: Take a deep breath, examine all the evidence, and you may conclude that things aren’t quite as bad.

Let’s compile a ledger of the things that have definitely gotten worse in the last few months, the things that haven’t changed, and the things that have gotten better. And then let’s see whether we can come up with a more or less reasonable assessment. It goes without saying, of course, that by better or worse I mean better or worse for Ukrainian democracy, for the Ukrainian people, for freedom. By extension, what’s bad for Yanukovych is good for Ukraine.

Here are three things that belong on the bad side of the ledger:

  1. The Yanukovych–Putin pact saved the Ukrainian tyrant’s skin and pushed Ukraine along the road toward neocolonial status vis-à-vis Russia.
  2. Regime violence has increased and is likely to continue increasing.
  3. Anti-regime violence, provoked by years of regime violence, finally occurred on January 19th.

Here are a few that haven’t changed and are unlikely to change:

  1. The Yanukovych mafia regime’s authoritarianism, corruption, and weakness.
  2. Yanukovych’s despotism, incompetence, and callousness.
  3. Regime determination to manipulate the 2015 presidential elections.
  4. The Yanukovych economy’s inability to grow.
  5. The fascistoid Putin regime’s authoritarianism, corruption, and weakness.
  6. Putin’s charisma and macho bluster.
  7. The Putin economy’s inability to grow.
  8. The end of Putin’s energy monopoly.
  9. The European Union’s interest in Ukraine.

Here are several things that have changed for the better:

  1. The illegitimacy of Yanukovych and his regime is fully evident.
  2. Ukrainians have demonstrated that they are not apathetic, want to be free, and are capable of sustained and repeated mass mobilization.
  3. Ukrainians formed a mass movement, the “Maidan People’s Association,” with the potential to become a stable mass-based opposition.
  4. The United States has abandoned its “Ukraine fatigue” and is now concerned about the country.
  5. The Ukrainian diaspora has mobilized around the Euro Revolution and will become a permanent thorn in the side of the Yanukovych regime.

Pessimists generally place many of the points in my second category—of things that haven’t changed—into the bad column and thereby render a less rosy picture. But the fact of the matter is that the Yanukovych regime has remained quite consistent since 2010. It was a thuggish, brutal, nasty, and corrupt dictatorship before the Euro Revolution. And it’s remained true to itself ever since. We shouldn’t be surprised that such a regime would fail to listen to the demonstrators, and thereby further weaken itself.

The January 16th measures hurriedly passed by a rump parliament are illegal, but then again everything the regime has been doing since late 2010, when Yanukovych arrogated to himself the powers of a super-presidency and transformed himself into a sultan, has been anti-constitutional and, thus, illegal. The significance of the January 16th measures is not that they ushered in a repressive, violent, thuggish dictatorship, but that the Regionnaires openly and brazenly violated the Constitution in adopting them. Knowing full well that their legitimacy is nil, they adopted not laws, but threats. As opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said, the “authorities declared war on the people of Ukraine.” And the regime did so consciously, knowing that it is an occupation force.

Not surprisingly, anti-regime hotheads responded in kind on Sunday, January 19th. Violence always begets violence, and it was probably inevitable that individuals unaffiliated with the peaceful Maidan movement should have taken to attacking the police and firebombing their vehicles—on the order of disaffected minority rioters in the United Kingdom and France. I’ve put this in the bad column, because the regime could take advantage of it to attack and discredit the peaceful demonstrators. On the other hand, if it’s true that the Yanukovych mafia regime understands only force, then the riots may put the fear of God into it.

The other thing that hasn’t changed is the brittleness of the fascistoid Putin regime. I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere (see “Fascistoid Russia,” March/April 2012), but the reality is that a leader-centered corrupt authoritarian regime that rests on easy energy money is only strong if the leader remains charismatic and young, the corruption keeps getting fed easy money, and easy money keeps coming from oil and gas. But even Putin is getting old, the Russian economy is about to enter a decade of minimal growth, and Russia’s famed energy card looks decidedly less impressive in light of shale gas and liquid natural gas developments in the United States and Europe. Putin can beat his chest and talk empire—after all, he has to in order to maintain his image as the Big Man on Horseback—but his state and economy are too weak to sustain empire.

So, when you consider these features in relation to the neocolonial implications of the Yanukovych–Putin pact, you may want to relax a bit. Being a semi-colony will bring Ukraine no good, but Ukraine is highly unlikely to acquire genuine colonial status and it is highly likely to morph out of semi-colonial status as both the Yanukovych regime and the Putin regime experience their inevitable times of troubles.

Increasing Yanukovych regime violence is a definite bad, but it too has to be viewed in relation to all the goods that have emerged in the last two months. A mafia regime can do—and already has done—untold harm to innocent human beings, but violence pure and simple is not a sustainable strategy in the medium term, especially in a country with a highly developed civil society, mass-based opposition movement, and a demonstrated capacity to respond in kind. Does the Yanukovych regime want to provoke mass violence and a civil war that it may not win? 

Moreover, forces of coercion are very expensive and they produce nothing of value economically. Any regime that relies on them only for its existence is doomed to economic contraction, which in turn means declining opportunities for elite theft, growing popular discontent, and the growing likelihood of anti-regime violence. (As the French diplomat Talleyrand once said, “The only thing you cannot do with a bayonet is sit on it.”) Such a condition is inherently unstable—especially if rapacious regime elites begin to feel the heat, as they will if the United States, Canada, and the European Union impose sanctions on the most egregious crooks and the Ukrainian diaspora helps expose illegally financed Regionnaire assets in the West.

Even if you disagree with my threefold categorization, you may agree that a closer look at Ukraine’s current straights suggests that things aren’t quite as bad as they look to a sometimes despondent popular movement that expected the camarilla exploiting the country to cease being a camarilla and cease exploiting the country after several weeks of mass protests. I’d say the situation resembles an unstable standoff between the mafia regime and the mobilized people. Regime violence and thuggishness will not let up, at least for the foreseeable future. But neither will popular resistance and outside pressure. As one American ex-pat wrote to me from Kyiv, “I think we’re looking at years’ worth of low-grade revolution over here. Seems like every time I go outside I walk into a demonstration in front of this official office or that one, and I see no indication that people are not in this for the long, long, long haul.”

The possibilities for change, especially for the good, are immense, and that uncertainty is terrifying. Still, the “correlation of forces” (as the Soviets used to put it) favors the democratic opposition, particularly in the medium to long run, for the simple reason that, whatever the weaknesses of the Euro Revolutionaries, the Yanukovych regime is much weaker. I’ve been betting against Yanukovych and Putin for the last few years. I still am.

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