Ukraine, the Sick Man of Europe

Ukraine has a long way to go to achieve democracy and stability, and its fate is far from being stable and assured - and not only because of Moscow’s policy.

Shlomo Avineri
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Petro Poroshenko speaking to supporters at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on May 25, the day he was elected president of Ukraine. Credit: Reuters
Shlomo Avineri

Although held with little incident, the recent election that Petro Poroshenko won to become Ukraine’s president-elect took place in a divided country, whose government does not control its eastern regions, and one has to be rather skeptical of the view that the election of a pro-Western candidate will resolve the deep crisis in which Ukraine and the entire European and international political establishment are mired.

In many ways, Poroshenko represents all that is problematic in Ukraine: He is a billionaire oligarch (“the chocolate king”) who has been active in the country’s complicated and corrupt politics for years: He served as parliament speaker and foreign minister in the pro-Western Yushchenko government, but also as finance minister in the pro-Russian Yanukovych government. Not exactly the great white hope. At first glance, he seems to be more part of the problem than he is part of the solution.

But Ukraine’s problems go deeper than that. Ukraine in its current borders was created in patchwork fashion, as a result of Soviet political and administrative decisions. Historically, there was never a sovereign state of Ukraine, except for a brief period during the civil war that followed World War I. And the border areas between czarist Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth changed hands numerous times throughout history.

Eastern Galicia, whose capital is Lviv/Lwów and which was historically part of Poland, was annexed to the Soviet Union in wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Red Army’s victories over Nazi Germany. The northern Bukovina area, whose capital is Chernivtsi /Czernowitz, was previously part of Romania; before that, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It, too, was annexed to the Soviet Union, following the Soviet victory in World War II, as was the Carpathian region, which had been part of Czechoslovakia. In all of these regions there are ethnic and linguistic minorities, to whom Ukraine is a foreign land.

It was the Communist leadership in Moscow that annexed eastern Ukraine, with its nearly 10 million Russian-speakers, to Ukraine, despite its clear historical connection to Russia, for the express purpose of weakening Ukrainian nationalism – hostile to Russia and Communism – by adding a Russian ethnic and cultural element. The Crimean Peninsula, which was just yanked away from Ukraine by the Putin government, was always a part of Russia, and had no historical, ethnic or linguistic connection to Kiev.

This arrangement needn’t have precluded the formation of a functioning Ukrainian state – but this never happened, so it’s no wonder that Ukraine is perceived, by enemies and friends alike, as “the sick man of Europe.”

Despite its size and wealth, since gaining independence Ukraine has been unable to develop stable political frameworks. Post-Communist Eastern Europe is full of countries that managed, in different ways, to consolidate as stable democracies – Look at Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, for example. Russia, however, has become a neoauthoritarian state with an autocratic ruler. Ukraine has not developed in either of these directions.

Ukraine has never had a functioning multiparty system. Its political parties all derive their identities from the personalities leading them, whether that is Yulia Tymoshenko or Viktor Yanukovych, rather from policies or ideologies. In addition to their blatant involvement in corruption on a vast scale (the palatial estate of the ousted president Yanukovych incredible is only the most extreme example), party leaders have also been very fickle and unreliable when it comes to foreign policy.

At the same time, the Ukrainian legal system has been a tool in the rulers’ hands, with the accepted norm being to prosecute the losing candidate in the last election for corruption. Tymoshenko’s trial was a bracing illustration of this – and her release was secured not through legal channels but rather by violent demonstrators seizing control of the prison. The concept of the rule of law does not exist in Ukraine, and the judges there are tools in the hands of the (oft-changing) authorities.

While struggling to enforce its authority in the east, the central government is increasingly coming to rely upon pro-government militias, given the army’s reluctance to obey the ruling authorities. Even in places in the east where the interim government in Kiev has been able to assert firm control – such as Dnepropetrovsk — this is accomplished by appointing local oligarchs as governors. Whatever success they are having has to be chalked up to them spreading their money and other goodies around to the local citizenry.

Ukraine isn’t exactly a failed state, but it’s pretty close. The desire of Europe and the United States to present a forceful challenge to Russia’s attempt to ensure its hegemony in Ukraine is understandable. But Poroshenko’s pro-Western statements and Western financial aid to his government cannot solve Ukraine’s inherent problems. A functional administrative and legal system must be developed, by removing the oligarchs from local, regional and national seats of power and creating, from the bottom up, a government that is attentive to the interests and beliefs of the people in the different regions. The proposed solution of decentralizing authority and fostering dialogue with the varied populations is a step in the right direction, but before government authority can be decentralized, the central government must first have clear and effective authority, and this is not the case.

While the situations are different in many ways, one can say that just as Egypt’s Tahrir-Square protests brought down the Mubarak government but did not lead to a democratic, liberal and tolerant government, Kiev’s Maidan protests brought down Yanukovych’s corrupt government but it’s not at all certain that it will be replaced by an effective and truly democratic government. Particularly since the coalition that violently ousted Yanukovych includes components whose affinity for democracy is dubious: At least two of these parties consider Ukraine’s Nazi collaborators their heroes. Ukraine has a long way to go to achieve democracy and stability, and its fate is far from being stable and assured – and not only because of Moscow’s policy.