Why It Could Take Years For Ukraine To Recover From 2014 Power Vacuum

Mar 20, 2014

The aftermath of protests in Kiev's Independence Square - February 26, 2014.
Credit Sasha Maksymenko / Flickr Creative Commons

Once the dust settles in Eastern Europe and the dispute over Crimea moves off the front pages of international media, Ukraine still faces a long road trying to right itself from teetering toward becoming a failed state.

Political Scientist Serhiy Kudelia
Credit Provided / Baylor Unviersity

Baylor University political scientist Serhiy Kudelia describes the movement as a revolution, rather than a coup, because of its policy-oriented focus and grassroots nature. But he says the inclusion of far-right nationalist representatives in the new government may become problematic.

“Giving positions like the prosecutor general or the defense minister – something that will generate some fears on the part of the ethnic Russians both in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine -  was a mistake,” Kudelia says.

After taking power in 2010, ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych tried to build a centralized, authoritarian system modeled after Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“He did not take into account the diversity of Ukraine – both regionally and the strength of the civil society that he had to face – something that Russia did not have when Putin was building up his political system,” Kudelia says.

Beyond appropriately managing ethnic diversity, Ukraine’s new government faces fiscal constraints, lack of trust in basic public institutions, and a challenge of establishing legitimacy on the international stage. In a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, Kudelia writes Ukraine has “a parasitic, interconnected political class, which is very good at using populism and predation to prosper.”

The immediate challenge for Ukraine will be to cleanse itself of these vestiges of the past and start building from scratch those state institutions that would make its democratic progress irreversible. And if Ukraine’s new political leaders are ever tempted by absolutism, they should think back to this month and to the people’s spirit of resistance, which Yanukovych failed to heed. Ultimately, Ukraine’s future will depend on the will of citizens rather than the opportunistic choices of elites. And it will be much more secure because of that.

Kudelia told KGOU’s World Views he would like to see Ukraine build a parliamentary system similar to Poland and other European countries. High levels of regional autonomy and a federal system are a good idea, but Kudelia says those policies should be implemented carefully.

“If you pursue a very nationalistic policy without taking into account the mainstream, then of course that will alienate substantial parts of the population,” Kudelia says. “Under the federal structure, this will create pressure and incentives for other regions to secede.”

KGOU produces World Views through a collaborative partnership with the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies, with a goal of bringing internationally-focused conversations to an Oklahoma audience. Help support these efforts with a donation online.


REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Paul Goode, Serhiy Kudelia, welcome to the show and thank you for joining us.

PAUL GOODE, SERHIY KUDELIA: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CRUISE: Well we're back here to talk about the situation in Ukraine. Obviously this is something that we've been following now since November. It seems to be an evolving situation. And I was wondering Serhiy, how are we to think about what happened in February in Ukraine? This overthrow of Yanukovych, a removal from office, is this something that we might classify - and certainly the media has classified- as a revolution? It doesn't quite sound like what an academic would call a revolution. Or the Eastern media has called this a coup? Or was this a constitutional protest that removed an authoritarian leader? How should we be thinking about this? 

KUDELIA: Well, I think we should start discussing the origins of that movement because it started as a protest against a certain policy. It's very policy oriented. It was just a bunch of people who expected Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government to sign an association agreement with the European Union and to move forward with the European integration, something that the President has promised for a long time - for his entire presidency.  And this initial impetus, which is a policy-oriented impetus, basically transformed into a more revolutionary movement. And as a result we saw the toppling of the President and the coming in of the opposition, which some may correctly characterize as a revolution, primarily because it involved a large number of people in the streets. A coup is typically done by people on the inside. It involves a smaller group of people who are overthrowing a particular person through a palace coup or a palace trick. Here it was a genuinely grassroots movement that included not just the opposition leaders or members of political parties, but really broader social segments of society.  

CRUISE: And there's been a lot of comparison of this to the Orange Revolution, but you've written that these are quite different. That these protests actually look more like historical protests from the past, is that correct?

KUDELIA: My point was that in a way the difference between Ukraine and Russia was that Yanukovych tried to build a very centralized authoritarian system that would be similar to Putin's system and he did not take into account the diversity of Ukraine, both regionally and the strength of the civil society that he had to face - something that Russia did not have when Putin was building up his political system.

GOODE: Serhiy, I'd like to ask - the composition of the protestors has been really a crucial aspect of the arguments over whether or not the new government in Kiev is legitimate. In particular, the Russian narrative has really emphasized the role of what it calls … ultranationalists, fascists - To what extent are those elements really present? And what kind of role did they play? And should the West really be paying attention to that as Kiev tries to move towards trying to secure a legitimate new government?

KUDELIA: Right. Well, definitely the presence of nationalists was more prominent and visible during the last wave of protests compared to the Orange Revolution. There was a clear usage of these historical figures that were associated with the Nationalist movement in the 1930s and the 1940s against the Soviets, against the Soviet Union. And while I can say that the strength of the commitment of the Nationalist groups within that movement helped to sustain it over a longer period of time, most of the people who were camped out on the streets - many of them, I shouldn't say most - many of them were hardcore nationalists. But I would not say or agree with the Russian characterization of the movement as dominated by the Nationalists. Again, as I said, it had a wide variety of groups that were involved in it. They organized self-defense units, which were these sort-of paramilitary groups that were primarily, initially created to defend themselves from the attacks from the riot police. There were some nationalist paramilitary groups, but many of them were groups that represented different segments of society. I have some polls that show that basically the anti-Russian feelings, anti-Russian sentiments of Nationalists were shared by no more than twenty percent of the entire protest movement. It was primarily a movement against repressive actions of the authorities, against what some people saw as excessive use of force, but not necessarily against Russia. On your second question, whether they should be concerned - Yes. Absolutely. And I think one of the mistakes of the new authorities was to include so many representatives of the nationalist far-right parties in the new government, particularly giving the positions like the prosecutor general or the defense minister - something that will generate some fears on the part of the ethnic Russians both in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. So I think this was a mistake. And I think it the West has the possibility to communicate certain policy advice to the new government it should communicate that idea that if you were to include nationalists you should give them positions like the agriculture ministry, or maybe something that has to do with roads, but not something that has to do with the use of force. 

CRUISE: So a wide variety of people and opinions in the opposition and they coalesced around Yanukovych and his hopeful and eventual removal. What comes next? How to keep the forward momentum going? What can Ukraine do? 

KUDELIA: Well, first of all, of course they already faced once they moved in, once they came into power - they were already faced with very difficult legacies from the previous regime. One of them was the economic legacy, the fact that the country is essentially bankrupt. Much of the money that has been given to Ukraine over the years or loaned to Ukraine was embezzled, stolen. And we need substantial funds to pay off the debts that we already accumulated in addition to fulfilling the basic functions of the state. The second challenge has to do with the external threat coming from Russia and the possibility of continued destabilization that will diffuse from Crimea to other parts of Ukraine. In addition to that, there are basic questions of enhancing the state capacity and rebuilding the institutions of the state. Basic institutions, the court system, for example, the law enforcement - they have been destroyed by the previous regime because they have been successfully politicized, they have been abused and misused by the authorities, and the public in general does not have trust in these institutions. SO these are huge challenges that the new governments face. And the problem is that not only they don't have resources to address these problems - both intellectual resources and financial - but also they don't have enough legitimacy. We see that the key issue that President Putin has been stressing - the poor legitimacy of the current authorities - essentially, in some respects, he is right because the acting president, who replaced Yanukovych, has been put in his place through very dubious formal procedures. it's only the government and the prime minister who are, i would say, more or less legitimate. And that's one of the reasons why President Obama agreed to meet with the Ukrainian prime minister in Washington. And these are sort of the three most important challenges that they have to deal with. I don't think that without substantial western backing - both from the European Union and the United States -I don't think they will be able to address these challenges adequately.

GOODE: One of the legacies of the previous regime might be considered given the current operating parliament insofar as it was elected under the previous system prior to the constitutional changes that were adopted following Yanukovych being ejected from power. Why do you think it is that there hasn't been a push for new parliamentary elections as well as new presidential elections? 

KUDELIA: Excellent question. i personally favor both early presidential and parliamentary elections. I think the vested interest of members of parliament who realize that many of them might not be re-elected if there are new elections - that's something that prevents them from moving forward. Both the opposition - some of the opposition parties - realize that they may lose substantial number of support because there are new political actors that emerged during these protests- both youth groups and some more nationalistic parties than the far right parties. So there is a lot of competition for the former opposition. And the party of regents, the ruling party, obviously lost a lot of support as a result of these protests. So all of the key political actors who can decide on staging new parliamentary elections are actually not interested in it. 

CRUISE; Well thinking about, again, moving forward - I think one of the criticisms, perhaps, of the United States and the Western world is that we have tried to advance democracy very much in our own image and what that democracy is going to look like. So I’m just curious - Can and should Ukraine end up in a situation that looks very Western? Or is Ukrainian democracy going to be something unique and what might that look like? 

KUDELIA: I'm always wary about the characterizations of democracy as unique, because must I say we have our own unique version of democracy that always reminds me of a more Aurelian take on democracy than anything else. I hope we will just follow the standard path. Obviously we will need to design our institutions more in correspondence with the ethnic composition of the state itself. That's something that has been ignored by the previous designers - that given how polarized the country is, concentrating too many powers in the presidents is the wrong idea because it creates a very tough political competition, very intense political competition that then leads to one of... half of the country feeling cheated. And so I think that a more parliamentary system would be better for Ukraine and a different kind of election system as well - not measured entirely by the more proportional representation system. But in general I think that the European path for Ukraine, in line with Poland, in line with other European countries, is something that we can hope to achieve realistically. Not necessarily in the near future, but maybe in the next ten years. 

GOODE: Some have suggested that in Ukraine what is needed right now is not so much reconstitution of central state authority as much as it is the decentralization of power, if not possibly federalization of Ukraine. Many people in Ukraine are steadfastly opposed to this, especially under the current circumstances. What's your take on this? Would Ukraine benefit from federalization, or is it actually potentially a threat to Ukrainian statehood? 

KUDELIA: Well, I personally favor federalization. Of course, many people define federalization differently. I think one of the mistakes of the new authorities was their rejection of any attempt to try to negotiate new deal, a new relationship with Crimea once they came in. They should have made it clear that they were willing to give them greater autonomy, greater control over their budgetary resources, greater influence for their parliament- which has so far been a rubber step situation for Kiev, really did not have much powers - and an opportunity to elect their own leader in the form of prime minister. So, I think in general federalization, if we mean giving greater control over financial resources and self-rule for the localities in Ukraine is a good idea. Of course, it presents a lot of risks. If, on the national level, you continue to impose a certain set of preferences that would diverge from the preferences of certain parts of the country. So, in other words, if you on the national level pursue a very nationalistic policy without taking into account the mainstream, the middle water if you want, of the country - then of course that will alienate substantial parts of the population and under the federal structure this will create pressure and incentives for other regions to secede. So, in other words, federalization requires a consensus on the national level about what these common policies should be for the future. But in general, yes, I agree it's a good idea for Ukraine.

CRUISE: Well, certainly much to consider. Thank you gentlemen for joining me.

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