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Ukraine: The Yanukovych Family Business

Just when did people start referring to the inner circle around President Viktor Yanukovych as “The Family”? The term is now commonplace, but my impression is that it started entering the political vocabulary of Ukraine about six to twelve months ago, when son Oleksandr joined Viktor Senior and Viktor Junior to form a triumvirate of power holders and all three began promoting their buddies to positions of authority in the government or to positions of unbounded rapaciousness in the economy.

Little Viktor has long been active in the youth branch of the Party of Regions—call them the “Regionnairettes”—and has served as a dutiful member of Parliament, where he’s been filmed acting uprightly by voting on behalf of absent comrades (a constitutional infraction, by the way, but what the hell). His big brother, Oleksandr, is the dentist extraordinaire whose mastery of gums and teeth somehow propelled him to the ranks of Ukraine’s one hundred richest individuals at precisely the time that Big Viktor was president.

The head of the central bank, the 36-year-old Serhii Arbuzov, is a friend of “The Family,” as is the recently appointed minister of finance, the 38-year-old Yuri Kolobov. See the pattern? Where money’s at stake, the Yanukovych brothers make sure their pals are in charge, and Dad says, “Da.”

Who knows just how much the Yanukovych boys are worth? After all, every dollar of visible wealth is probably matched with another hundred stashed away in hidden assets or foreign bank accounts. And there’s lots of very visible wealth, from Junior’s fast cars to the Dentist’s real estate holdings.

But corruption isn’t my point. All authoritarian leaders and their cliques raid state coffers and grow very rich, very quickly. Rather more important is that only very few authoritarian leaders rule by means of bona fide family members. Most prefer to surround themselves with loyal cops, soldiers, and other lugs.

Good ol’ Leonid Brezhnev, the man who brought the “era of stagnation” to the Soviet Union, had a “Family” of his own, centered on his corrupt daughter, Galina. Every North Korean leader in the last few decades has relied on his sons. Romania’s notorious Nicolae Ceausescu made wife Elena a member of the Politburo and permitted his dissolute son Nicu to harass half the country’s women. Saddam Hussein had a stable of powerful, and thuggish, sons. Syria’s Hafez al-Assad made sure son Bashar succeeded him. Hosni Mubarak hoped son Gamal would take his place. And where would Cuba’s Fidel Castro be without his brother Raúl?

In all these instances, authoritarian rulers employ family members to misrule their countries. The inevitable result is, of course, vast corruption, as evident in Yanukovych’s Ukraine as in Ceausescu’s Romania or Brezhnev’s USSR. But the inevitable cause of rule by family is the ruler’s lack of trust in his own supporters and his isolation from both the ruling elites and society. Why would you want your untested offspring to run a country if you had smart elites whom you trusted? You wouldn’t. What distinguishes the incompetent son or daughter from the competent policymaker or technocrat is that you, as the supreme leader, can count on the former to follow your every wish and command. You can trust them—or, at least, you think you can trust them. In contrast, smart policymakers, even if they’re your supporters, can never be fully trusted. They may decide to jump ship, or worse, to stab you in the back.

The rise of the Yanukovych Family is thus a sign of Yanukovych’s growing helplessness. When a president of a big country has to rely on Junior and the Dentist to run the place, you know he’s in trouble. And the trouble will only increase. After all, what do Junior and the Dentist know about running a state? Nothing. And would either of them actually tell Dad the bad news or would they be more inclined to sugarcoat it? The latter, obviously. Which means that the more Yanukovych relies on the boys for information and advice, the more misinformed and ill-advised he will be, and the more incompetent and unprofessional his policies will become.

The amassing of Yanukovych Family power heralds nothing less than the fall of Papa Yanukovych. I wouldn’t be surprised if Junior and the Dentist were licking their chops and preparing political eulogies.

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