Thursday, January 30, 2014

Breakdown of the Soviet System with a Capitalist Face in Ukraine

Most people in the U.S. first became aware that something was going on when the statue of Lenin was torn down at Bessarabs`kyi Square.  Sadly, journalists who covered that event did not answer the question that many Americans were probably wondering about as they heard the news:  if Ukraine has been independent for more than twenty years and has already had one revolution, what was Lenin still doing up there anyway?  I know journalism is about news, but really it is about answering people’s questions about current events, and since many of the journalists were probably wondering the same thing it would have been nice had they shared what they learned with viewers.  I raise this not to snipe at journalists, even though coverage of Ukraine has been so lousy but because that question gets at the heart of the broader context that led to the Euromaidan revolution.  

So to all who have been wondering about that Lenin statue’s survival until 2013, it lasted because bold as Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991 was, it was not a revolutionary act.  Rather, it was driven by discontent with the major economic reform Gorbachev was then preparing to introduce, and national sovereignty was used as a justification by the Ukrainian Party elite to retain power.  That path to independence has largely shaped Ukraine’s political and economic development since, and explains why the Orange Revolution brought so little change, for even as people sincerely lined up on different sides in 2004, the underlying issue was which faction of the post-Soviet elite would wield power.  What became clear after the Orange Revolution, however, is that the interconnections with the elite where stronger than the will for reform.  

Those, including the much of the Western media, who have chosen to view current events through the prism of the Orange Revolution are, however, sadly mistaken.  From the beginning observers have noted that the Euromaidan demonstrations are not about exchanging one political elite for another, they are about a reshaping the relationship between the government and the governed.  As such, it reflects a revolution that has taken place in Ukrainian society that began but did not end with the Orange Revolution. Moreover, the fact that the protests have remained strong despite repeated government efforts to bring Euromaidan to heel speaks for a new maturity of post-Soviet Ukrainian society, and shows that the Soviet system with a capitalist face that has prevailed in Ukraine for the past two decades appears to have lost its legitimacy.

To be sure, that change is most evident in the west where the Party of Regions, which for all intents and purposes is the functional, if not legal, successor of the Communist Party, has never been a political power.  Yet, the coventional treament of the East-West divide misses the point that even in the east and south of the country the legitimacy of the Soviet system with a capitalist face has broken down under Yanukovych’s rule.  Until recently seeing no credible alternative people there have accepted the leading role of the Party of Regions.  During the 2004 Orange Revolution and again in 2010 and 2012, people there voted for Yanukovych expecting that he would deal with the considerable unemployment there, and encourage the oligarchs to modernize the heavy industry in their control in ways that would improve the economy and spread the wealth.  Yet, Yanukovych did not do that, and Ukrainians in the East have seen their image of the local boy made good after a rough start completely sullied, as he has neglected them leaving their situations have remained unchanged, while his family has in the space of three years joined the oligarch class through legitimate source other than connections.

Of course, thanks to Yanukovych’s strong-arm tactics, people in the East still have no credible alternative to the Party of Regions, but contrary to the usual western portrayals they are not sheep.  Last weekend spurred on by the sudden passage of laws restricting protests, significant numbers of protestors gathered in many eastern cities threatening to take over regional government offices, just as their fellow citizens had done in the West.  Compared to the numbers active in the west their numbers were modest, but rather than demonstrate a sense of moderation on its own turf, the leadership showed its fear and its belief that it is as above the law.  In Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhe, the Berkut riot police cooperated with hired thugs dressed in sport outfits, who used the Berkut lines to run hit and run attacks on the protestors.   One commentator, has described this as affecting people in Dnipropetrovsk in a similar way that the original 30 November beatings at the Maidan in Kiev had on people in central and western Ukraine.  

Of course, many of the protestors have been arrested, but the people will not forget this, and regional officials are clearly running scared.  In Luhans`k, Mykolaiev, Kherson, Odessa, Kharkiv and Donets`k, the Party of Regions run administrations have barricaded themselves into their buildings in preparation for attacks from Banderists (a reference to the Ukrainian Insurgent leader, Stepan Bandera whose followers fought against the Soviet regime during and after World War II).  Governments confident in the support of the people just do not do that, and it cannot help but spur a sense among more previously passive locals that the Party of Regions grip on power is far weaker than they had believed.  That does not mean there is a credible alternative, but it may well embolden people to act and create one in the process.

We are nowhere near the end of the crisis in Ukraine, but anyone who wants to establish a long-term solution will have to do more than just restore order.  They will have to offer a new political and economic ideas that will provide solutions to the problems that the cooperation between Ukraine’s post-Soviet elite and the oligarchs who have manifestly failed to resolve. 

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