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The Yanukovych Ruin and Its Aftermath, Part 2

While the Yanukovych regime’s likely disintegration (discussed last week in Part 1) is not tantamount to an institutional void, the destruction wrought by sultanism will place post-Yanukovych Ukraine in the extraordinary position of being a country without effective political institutions. Indeed, Ukraine will approximate a failed state. Under conditions such as these, the most important political actors will be the oligarchs, forces of coercion, civil society and opposition movements, and charismatic individuals.

The oligarchs, the military, the militia, and the security service will survive collapse intact, even if the regime’s downfall is accompanied by social upheaval and mass violence:

  • Ukraine’s tycoons will remain fabulously wealthy and influential, regardless of whether they hide on their estates or in their villas in the West. Their primary interests will, as always, be the protection of their assets and privilege, which means stability and security. Although sultanism offered some measure of both, the collapse of sultanism and Ukraine’s subsequent time of troubles will likely incline the oligarchs to seek to align Ukraine with the global economy in general and the West in particular as the only reliable guarantors of both.
  • The forces of coercion will remain relatively strong, although, in all likelihood, despised by, and illegitimate in the eyes of, most of the population.
  • A variety of civic and political groups, movements, and organizations will survive, and perhaps even thrive, in a stagnant sultanistic regime, and all of them will make claims on the right to guide Ukraine in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s fall. Their claims will be persuasive, legitimate, and popular, but they will be effective only if civil society resists the temptation to squabble and self-destruct.
  • In transitional circumstances such as these, charismatic leaders will thrive. Articulate individuals with forceful agendas and moral authority will be best positioned to play such roles, and it is they who could provide civic and political organizations with a unifying agenda and a common purpose. It is also they who could conduct negotiations with strong, but weakened forces of coercion and win them over to the side of the people. If she survives until then, whether in jail or in exile, Yulia Tymoshenko could easily emerge as Ukraine’s Nelson Mandela.

With institutional destruction, regime collapse, and Regionnaire flight on the one hand, and oligarch influence, coercive uncertainty, social mobilization, and charismatic leaders on the other, Ukraine could be in the position to do away with more than 24 years of regime ineffectiveness and achieve an institutional breakthrough along the lines of East Central Europe in 1989–1991. Then, too, the existing Communist regimes had eviscerated political institutions, promoted state decay, and tolerated powerful civic institutions such as Solidarity, dissident movements such as Charter 77, and charismatic individuals such as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel.

When the Communist regimes collapsed and the forces of coercion remained indecisive and were unwilling to crack down, civic/political organizations were able to join forces with charismatic individuals to promote breakthroughs that enabled their countries to abandon communism and embark on democratic and free-market reform. The forces of the ancien régime were too weak, too confused, or too preoccupied with saving their own skins to stop them, and success was assured.

The choice before Ukraine’s future democratic elites will mirror that before Poland and Czechoslovakia more than twenty years ago. Post-Yanukovych Ukraine will remain unified, like Poland, if its civic-political institutions, oligarchs, and leaders can agree on some degree of federalization or decentralization that enables Ukrainian-language speakers and Russian-language speakers to use Ukrainian as a lingua franca and to enjoy linguistic choice at other levels of social interaction. Post-Yanukovych Ukraine will go the way of Czechoslovakia if some such consensus is not found.

Chances are that the Polish scenario will get the upper hand. The Yanukovych regime’s endorsement of Russian supremacism may appeal to diehard Russian-language speakers, but it will, several years from now, likely be as discredited as the regime that spawned it. Unless the post-Yanukovych democrats engage in linguistic maximalism, it’s a good bet that Ukraine will survive intact and that a “social contract” between East and West will emerge, especially if the oligarchs endorse it, as they are likely to do. That said, we should remember that, if Ukraine follows in Czechoslovakia’s footsteps, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia prospered in the aftermath. A central-western Ukrainian Ukraine will move unhindered toward the West and do well economically. A southeastern Russian Ukraine will probably join the Russian Federation and, while certain to stagnate economically, will be able to enjoy the Russian language and Soviet traditions.

A more substantive danger to post-Yanukovych Ukraine will be Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The chances that a declining quasi-fascist petro-state such as Russia will become strong and stable are few. A beleaguered Putin will almost certainly not choose democracy as the means to save himself and his regime. Instead, Putin will tighten the reins and increase his neo-imperialist rhetoric, perhaps hoping for a “quick little war” that could provide his tottering regime with a shot in the arm.

Will Ukraine survive a possible military intervention? It could go the route of Yugoslavia, and the resulting instability could also spell Russia’s doom. Or post-Yanukovych democrats and oligarchs may succeed in drawing on burgeoning popular patriotism and organizing a mass mobilization in defense of the “homeland.” Given the parlous nature of the Putin state, the outcome could easily be a stalemate, which would be tantamount to a victory for Ukraine. Naturally, a defeat would mean Ukraine’s loss of the Crimea and some southeastern territories to Russia. That would be painful, but it could also consolidate a post-Yanukovych consensus around a breakthrough agenda in independent Ukraine.  

Future historians are likely to credit the Yanukovych Ruin with having cleaned Ukraine’s slate institutionally and thereby prepared the way for a consolidated democracy and a free-market economy. It took Poland a little more than three decades to become independent after the uprising of 1956. With the acceleration of time in the present age, Ukraine’s 1989 may even come in 2015. And then, with a little luck, the country may finally be in the position to join the world.

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