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Watching Yanukovych's Mafia Regime Squirm

It’s been fun watching the Yanukovych regime squirm these last few weeks. Ukraine has exploded with the Euro Revolution. The world is in awe of the tenacity, spirit, nonviolence, and democratic ideals of the demonstrators. The United States has openly threatened the regime with sanctions. The European Union has expressed its displeasure. The people hate President Yanukovych and openly treat him as a buffoon.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the regime even failed to mobilize a mass demonstration in its own support on the weekend of December 14th and 15th. People were paid 300 hryvnia (about $37) and/or threatened with dismissal from their jobs. The regime had all the buses and trains it needed at its disposal. And instead of the 200,000 who were supposed to descend on Kyiv, something like 10,000 to 20,000 showed up. They stood around for a few hours and then rushed for the exits. Contrast that laughably small turnout with the hundreds of thousands who’ve voluntarily marched against the regime four weekends in a row.

If you’ve ever wondered what an emperor with no clothes looks like, take a look at Yanukovych.

The emperor hasn’t just been exposed as a weak and desperate tyrant; worse: he’s cornered. No one likes him; no one trusts him—neither inside nor outside Ukraine. So what’s a cornered emperor to do? There are two ways of reacting to such a predicament. The smart way is to evaluate how you got there, correct your mistakes, and seek a way out. The stupid way is to revert to all the instincts that got you cornered in the first place.

Guess which path the Yanukovych regime has chosen?

Might the regime consider offering the opposition a compromise, if only as a devious means of splitting it? Of course not. The Yanukovych camarilla refuses to make any concessions whatsoever. The government must stay. Prime Minister Azarov must stay. And all talk of political alternatives is treason. Basta.

How about engaging the opposition in an honest dialogue? Are you kidding? Azarov called the peaceful demonstrators Nazis, while Yanukovych convened a round table, ostensibly with the opposition, but made sure to pack it with his acolytes. And the authorities have begun investigating individual democratic activists, including the winner of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest, Ruslana Lyzhychko.

Might the regime tone down its mendacity? Well, you know the answer. The Regionnaire deputy party boss in Parliament has called US Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy, who visited Kyiv on December 14th and 15th, “extremists.” Five local elections were also held that weekend and—surprise!—the regime unabashedly employed its usual shenanigans.

Might Yanukovych, who runs everything, at least take some responsibility for the brutality of his own riot police? No way. Yanukovych actually had the chutzpah to suggest that police and demonstrators were equally responsible for the violence. (And you can appreciate his logic: after all, if the protesters’ heads weren’t in the way, police clubs would have swung harmlessly through the air.) Then he tried to foist all the blame on three subordinates. When one of them accused national security adviser Andrei Klyuyev, an oily man who’s never refrained from employing the perks of office to pursue the just cause of self-enrichment, of having given the orders, the procurator’s office stepped in and absolved Klyuyev of wrongdoing.

Many years ago, when I was still in grad school, one of my professors said, “All these elaborate political science models of Soviet politics miss the point. The best model is the mafia.” He was right about the Soviet Communist Party then and he would have been equally right about the Yanukovych regime now. As Rajan Menon of New York’s City College says about Yanukovych, he is “id-driven.” Like any capo, he understands only force, greed, and fear.

How would a mafia boss respond to popular protests? Exactly in the manner of Yanukovych. He’d snarl and bang the table and fly into a rage and lie, lie, lie. Oh, and continue stealing—just to be on the safe side. Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that “embezzlement and corruption alone have probably generated $8 billion to $10 billion a year to the ‘Yanukovych family’ during the last three years.”

And if snarling didn’t work, the don would go to the capo di tutti capi—Russia’s Vladimir Putin—with hat in hand. Don Vlad apparently promised Yanukovych $15 billion in credits and a 33 percent reduction in the price of gas. The billions should save Yanukovych from looming default; the price decrease will line the pockets of Regionnaires and their oligarch pals. Meanwhile, the deal will guarantee that the Ukrainian economy will continue to spiral downward and be at the mercy of the regime’s predations.

And don’t be so certain that Putin will hand over the dough just like that. Russia’s economy is projected to be stagnant for the next 5 to 10 years, and easy money isn’t that easy anymore. Besides, Putin’s own fortune is, according to the New School’s Nina Khrushcheva, $40 to 70 billion. The fella knows the value of a hard-earned buck and is unlikely to shower a lazybones like Yanukovych with limitless lucre. He’ll attach so many strings that Yanukovych will be reduced to a puppet and Ukraine will be reduced to an underdeveloped colony with an exploited population determined to drive the camarilla from power.

Buoyed by his capitulation to Putin, Yanukovych has staved off humiliation for a while. His back is still to the wall, and he still has no idea of how to extricate himself from the mess he created. So expect him to continue promising the world, accelerating his “family’s” plundering of the economy, and trying to wear down the opposition by means of attrition and targeted repressions. Since the vast majority of the population detests him, do not expect the opposition to buckle under. Meanwhile, the risk for Yanukovych is obvious. The longer he stands in that corner with no clothes, the more likely will his increasingly desperate henchmen start squirming and looking for alternatives. Once pro-regime rats start jumping ship, you can say “hasta la vista, baby” to the emperor.

In the weeks ahead, Ukrainians, their friends in the world, and especially Don Vlad would do well to remember two things. (1) Never believe anything Yanukovych says or signs. (2) Always expect him to stab you in the back.

As the saying goes, you can’t teach an old thug new tricks. 

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