The Consequences of the Ukrainian Revolution

Proposition: On balance, the Ukrainian Revolution has achieved its goalsProposition: On balance, the Ukrainian Revolution has achieved its goals

YR (in favour): Nearly four years after the start of the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, one hears more and more voices in Ukraine (and outside of Ukraine) arguing that no real ‘revolution’ has actually taken place in the country. The most optimistic among these observers affirm that the revolution continues, although more slowly than they would have liked. But let me offer a number of theses that will allow readers to better understand the core of the changes and transformations occurring in Ukraine, post-revolution.

In Ukraine and in the West (and East) alike, there is considerable confusion about what Ukraine could reasonably have accomplished over the course of its 26 years of post-Soviet independence. Discussions to the effect that Ukraine could have followed the path of Poland, the Baltic states, Romania or even South Korea do not reflect a serious understanding of the state of Ukrainian society in 1991 and in the subsequent three decades, the structure of the economy, the role of the erstwhile nomenclature of the Communist Party in the emergence of an independent Ukraine, and also, to be sure, the influence of Russia on the political and economic processes of the young Ukrainian state.

The decisive factors in shaping and preserving the amorphous state of Ukraine prior to its present conflict with Russia were twofold: first, Ukraine’s conservative society; and, second, the questionable quality of the country’s elites. Still, the Second Ukrainian Republic fulfilled the essential and, for all practical intents and purposes, only mission that it was really able to fulfill – to wit, the creation of a proper urban middle class, which eventually became the driver of the revolutionary changes in 2013-2014. The emergence of this middle class or social group is unique in the entire history of Ukraine, as Ukraine has never enjoyed two-plus decades of peace in the context of independence.

The Euromaidan explosion was driven by three fundamental conflicts: first, conflict between then-President Viktor Yanukovych and a number of oligarchs; second, conflict among Ukraine’s oligarchs over access to the state budget and control, through state institutions, of monopoly positions in various sectors of the national economy; and third, conflict between the oligarchs and the emerging urban middle class, which was fighting for de-monopolization of the Ukrainian economy and democratization of the general political system. This internal game within Ukraine coincided with the geopolitical games of external actors (the West and Russia), which played for the advancement of their own interests through alliances with various groups in Ukraine’s elite and society.

What is notable is that when the Maidan revolution happened, the urban middle class did not have any formal or professional political organization. It was therefore unable to assume the entirety of state power after the collapse of the Yanukovych regime in February 2014. The Ukrainian state remained, de facto, in the hands of oligarchic groups, even if there was a significant change in the balance of power and influence between government and the oligarchs. Nevertheless, the structure and character of the political regime in Ukraine did not change: Ukraine today remains an oligarchic democracy, where powerful patron-client relations and corruption are a form of defence within, and reproduction of, the existing model of state.

To be sure, the oligarchic state nearly collapsed during the 2014 crisis. This was due to three overlapping factors: the fiscal crisis, the geopolitical clashes, and the uprising of the masses. The oligarchic state was able to survive only because the protesting middle class was, in the end, used for the legitimation of cosmetic changes, while the annexation of Crimea and the ensuing Donbass war eventually became key factors in distracting Ukrainian society away from the internal or domestic crisis in favour of the threat emanating from the Russian Federation. Western support, of course, mitigated the fiscal crisis in Ukraine, putting off into the future major balance-of-payments problems and the massive inefficiency in the use of national resources.

At the end of February 2014, I called what was happening the ‘Girondist’ stage of slow Ukrainian revolution, by analogy with the French Revolution. This stage is characterized by half-measures in national decision-making, where neither the allies of the ancien régime nor the allies of the revolution enjoy a decisive balance of power. As a result, we see in Ukraine today unstable or temporary coalitions of convenience or opportunity, comprising conditional or unreliable elements: radical old-timers, moderate old-timers, and radical newcomers. The various alliances among these groups determine the nature of the transformations in the state system and in the country overall. In 2014, an alliance was created between the moderate old-timers and the moderate newcomers. This alliance survived through the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, when the radical-right parties failed to make it into the Rada (parliament), while the political left was ousted by populists behind whom loomed the interests of oligarchic groups.

GS (opposed): First, any revolution presupposes fast, often sudden, fundamental changes in the social system of a country and in the subjects and objects of social relations, injecting them with new meanings and senses, which in turn changes the trajectory of the development of the overall system (post-revolution). Any serious analysis of the changes in Ukraine – before, during and after Maidan, whether one calls the events of that time a revolution of dignity, a European revolution, or a more basic change in the country’s political regime – allows us to assert that Euromaidan was, above all else, a prologue. In other words, Euromaidan was but one step among many long-overdue transformations in the political, economic and other spheres of Ukrainian life and society. In that sense, the Euromaidan revolution was not dissimilar to the 1905 revolution in tsarist Russia.

Second, it is very important for GB readers around the world to understand what exactly is happening in Ukraine today. One sometimes gets the impression that a fairly large portion of Ukraine’s citizens themselves do not fully comprehend, in the words of the 20th century Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, “where the fate of events is taking us” – that is, the pith and substance of the country’s events and transformations, and where and why Ukraine is moving according to particular vectors. This proper understanding of Ukraine’s realities must be formed in the context of the threefold drop in the value of the national currency, ever-growing inflation, daily gun-shootouts – including in Kiev – and, among many other pathologies, general fear among countless Ukrainians for the security of loved ones, on both sides of the conflict, in the war zone in the Donbass.

As we debate here, before the very eyes of Ukraine’s citizens, a kaleidoscope of political show-fights is taking place, involving ancien régime politicians who were able, as it were, to ‘change their colours’ in time, as well as younger politicians, working energetically and emphatically, with all parts of their body and mind, to gain a foothold on this political ‘Olympus.’ These politicians, who are incessantly reaching out to grab the throats of their opposite numbers in order to demonstrate their apparent love for Ukraine, are constantly in the company of so-called experts and analysts of unknown provenance and quality – especially as concerns the national security sector.

This horde, typically bereft of respect for facts or evidence, often gives birth to all manner of delirium under the guise of clever ideas – so long as these ideas can be sold to the public and, where also possible, monetized. This spectacle applies to any number of subjects of national concern, from the fight in the Donbass to the fight against corruption, educational reform, health care and the civil service. Alas, the aggregate consequence of all these transformations and mutations has been the death and maiming of thousands upon thousands of Ukrainians, the moral and economic suffering of hundreds of thousands of displaced people (all citizens of the country), and massive material losses for the people and the country alike. Bref, the time has come for truthful answers to uncomfortable questions – an intellectual reckoning that will be fundamental to the future of Ukraine as an independent state.

Of course, I cannot disagree, in general, with your assertion about the existence of popular confusion in respect of what Ukraine could truly accomplish over the course of its independence following the disintegration of the USSR. But let me emphasize certain reference points that I believe to be fundamental to a proper apprehension of the content of the processes that will be key to the construction of the Ukrainian state in the near future. First, from the previous (Soviet-era, pre-state) condition, Ukraine effectively inherited the fundamental logic of the relationship between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of state power. The core of this logic is that everything – absolutely everything (including, of course, the distribution of positions at all levels of government and the allocation of corresponding resources) – is decided in and by the centre. In the Soviet period, this was the Politburo, headed by the general-secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Today, it is the president of Ukraine and his department, the Presidential Administration.

That there is in present-day Ukraine, as in other post-Soviet republics (recognizing that the Baltic states, as EU members, have a different juridical reality), a de jure, constitutionalized division of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches does not at core change anything. The Ukrainian president is not, in constitutional terms, the head of the executive branch, and yet, in practice, no single material issue of the executive branch, under the Ukrainian prime minister, can be decided without the president’s approval or agreement. Moreover, the Ukrainian president often gives direct orders (decrees) to the prime minister. For its part, the legislature (the Rada) cannot do what it could do even in the Soviet era. The assignment of higher military ranks, for example, is the exclusive competence of the Ukrainian president – even if, in Soviet times, it fell to the presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Finally, there are various non-negligible vectors of presidential influence on Ukraine’s judicial branch. In short, if the Ukrainian Constitution was agreed only in 1996 – a full five years after independence – it is also true that, since 1996, each new Ukrainian president has undertaken, lawfully and unlawfully, to ‘modernize’ this constitutional framework in the goal of consolidating and widening his own powers.

Such a state of affairs satisfies not only Ukraine’s bourgeoisie (first and foremost Ukraine’s oligarchs), but also Ukraine’s ‘strategic partners’ (Western and Asian alike), as it allows them to solve key issues of interest to them with one person alone. The extent to which critical Ukrainian interests are protected under this arrangement is an open question – to say nothing of the fact that Ukraine is constantly threatened internally by the prospect of a usurpation of power. Indeed, we might say that the current system of administration in Ukraine is actually ‘pregnant’ with the prospect of power usurpation – a prospect that could eventually lead to a bona fide dictatorship.

More than a decade ago, the Ukrainian politician and statesman, Evgeny Marchuk, stated publicly that, in the long run, it makes strategic sense for Ukraine to distance itself maximally from global centres of power and to concentrate, above all else, on its own problems. Failing this, Ukraine will be forced to operate on the terms set by the national interests of the countries comprising these power centres. Unfortunately, no one listened to Marchuk. And yet I believe that his thesis remains perfectly apposite today. Until Ukraine can stand firmly and solidly on its own feet, in terms of political and economic independence (and especially in terms of national security), it will not be able to create a modern system of public administration capable of reckoning with the challenges of this new century. And in this deficient state of affairs, it is very dangerous for Ukraine to play geopolitical games in one direction or another – east or west. For the country risks simply becoming a bargaining chip in great games that are beyond its proper pay grade, with all of the attendant consequences.

Understandably, as long as the national system of strategic decision-making – that is, fate-making decision-making – remains under the control of one person (which, I repeat, greatly pleases Ukraine’s oligarchs, who know to or with whom, when and how much to offer and share, not to mention Ukraine’s international partners, who can more easily advance their interests on Ukrainian territory by negotiating with this one person alone), the risks to Ukraine remain exceedingly high. In other words, in the absence of the development of a system of truly national priorities, and the implementation of these priorities – above all, the defence of national sovereignty (in all its dimensions) – the national economic system and territorial integrity of the country will remain under real threat. It is not accidental that Ukraine needed more than 15 years of independence to develop its first national security strategy (in 2007), which affirmed the principal threats to national security – among these, threats to national unity, destabilization of national economic development, the inadequacy of the national security sector vis-à-vis the demands of society and the challenges of modernity, and the variability and contradictory nature of Ukraine’s external environment. It is unlikely that the intensity of these threats will change in the coming decades. Moreover, new threats have since emerged, quite evidently, for Ukraine as an independent state.

I would not exaggerate the importance of the urban middle class in the events of Euromaidan in 2013-2014. Euromaidan was, for various reasons, supported, organized, coordinated and generously financed by certain Ukrainian oligarchs, politicians and, as is well established, external players. Let us also not harbour illusions in respect of the Ukrainian urban middle class as the decisive factor in the revolutionary changes that await Ukraine in the foreseeable future – if only to stave off the degradation or erosion of this very middle class. There are several reasons for this degradation, including the marked fall in Ukraine’s standard of living since the revolution, ever-increasing signs of national deindustrialization (a number of high-tech national companies are on the verge of disappearing), the loss of important technologies, the exodus of highly qualified specialists and, to be sure, the push from a significant number of young people with higher education to leave Ukraine for good.

Let me add that in the post-Maidan period in Ukraine, some 300,000 people have the status of participants in the Donbass conflict (in what are called ‘anti-terrorist operations’). By comparison, over the course of a decade (not four years), as many as 40,000 people in the Soviet period had the status of Afghanistan veterans. Now, we all know what is meant by the ‘Afghanistan syndrome’ in the Soviet context, or the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ in the American context. As such, a future major driver of revolutionary change in Ukraine could well be not the country’s educated urban middle class, but rather, as was the case a century ago in tsarist Russia, a semi-educated proletariat and peasants – in many cases angry at the authorities and the state for their miserable life, and with all of the manifest consequences of this blowback from revolution, including violence, theft and property expropriation, murder and all manner of crime and antisocial behaviour.

Let us also recall that the Orange Revolution, so-called, had not dissimilar conflicts underlying it. It too was publicly represented under the aegis of ‘injustice’ in relation to the election of the Ukrainian president. This ‘injustice’ was interpreted or perceived (and is sometimes still seen even today) from diametrically opposite positions or vantage points. Each side fancied that it was on the right side of justice. Alas, justice is a multidimensional concept, and often slippery. It is, as such, often used to manipulate the masses and is one of the strategies of the so-called coloured revolutions. Historically, the population of Ukraine lived under the yoke of many nations – variously Varangian, Mongolian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian. Therefore, Ukrainians traditionally do not like state power: they often regard it as ‘foreign,’ and are typically susceptible to slogans about ‘justice’ or ‘injustice’ in relation to that power.

From the ‘unfair’ counting of ballots to Yanukovych’s ‘golden loaf,’ perceptions of relative justice or injustice depend evidently on place and time and, of course, the interpretations of politicians, academics and experts. Given the right combination of forces, these perceptions could trigger mechanisms for future possible Maidans in Ukraine. And, judging by the current situation in Ukraine, in the medium term, I would suggest that the components of another future Maidan are well in place.

I do not agree with you that Ukraine, as a state or oligarchic state, nearly collapsed in 2014. After all, the oligarchic core of the state has not changed, and the geopolitical tendencies and trends have remained unchanged (although the uncertainty and risks around the state and the regional order have increased). In terms of administrative transformation, there is no basis at present for declaring that the balance of payment problems of Ukraine and the inefficiency in national resource use have disappeared. Meanwhile, the threat of national deindustrialisation and the size of the national debt have become increasingly acute. Let me repeat that history demonstrates that the rising up of the masses is a man-made thing, with many preconditions, and so we have just as many such preconditions to such uprising today as ever.

We must add to these preconditions the facts of the loss of Crimea, the armed conflict in the Donbass, the immeasurable rise in the number of weapons and the incidence of violence in the country, and, of course, the large quantum of announced or proclaimed but otherwise unrealized reforms. We must also reckon with the fight for resources and power at all levels of Ukrainian government and administration today. By comparison, the intensity of the fight for resources, at its peak under Yanukovych – even a few months before the Euromaidan – was of an order of magnitude smaller than it is today.

So will the Ukrainian state eventually collapse or splinter? It seems to me that, today, the slow Ukrainian revolution is slowly transforming into a counter-revolution, the core of which is a sentiment of a ‘plague on all your houses’ from a Ukrainian public, and especially the middle class, that has had enough of ‘cosmetic transformations.’ If the present authorities, disposed as they are to half-measures and half-decisions, is not able to negotiate with these forces, the aforementioned factors, as well as the triggering of external players and forces could bring to power an explosive mixture of players – to wit, an alliance of radical right and radical left parties, next to which will compete radicals and populists like Tyagnybock and Lyashko.

I do agree that the annexation of Crimea and the support of Russia to the Ukrainian population and forces hostile to Kiev have become and remain a determining factor that succeeded in turning the attention of society toward the threat posed by Russia. Indeed, this factor quickly became decisive in the country’s strategic consolidation around the US and its Western allies – in particular, in relation to sanctions against Russia as a geopolitical and potential military adversary of the US.

This is why the expression ‘occupation of Donbass’ became an expression that is not supposed to evoke an ounce of doubt among analysts, experts and politicians in Ukraine and in the West. Any doubts in this regard are simply not permitted, as these are deemed unpatriotic – that is, lest one be accused of being an ‘agent of Putin’ or Russia or even a separatist (with all the attendant implications and consequences). However, we can little understand the core of the events in Ukraine and around it, not to mention foretell the future, if we cannot honestly answer several fundamental questions, the correct answers to which would have heavy consequences for the Ukrainian state.

For instance, is the Donbass ‘occupied’? The occupation of territory by another country presupposes the presence of the armed forces of the occupying country and the subsequent standing up of a military or civilian administration under the aegis (control) of that country on the territory in question. This was the case, of course, during the occupation of Ukrainian (or Soviet) territory by the forces of Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1944. However, this is not what we see in the parts of Ukrainian territory in the Donbass not controlled by Kiev – that is, notwithstanding the considerable support of Russia for the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, to assert that this territory is ‘occupied’ by the armed forces of Russia is not correct.

On the territories not controlled by Kiev live millions of Ukrainian citizens. And yet we have not a single episode of real rebellion, massive partisan movements, or militias mobilizing against the ‘occupiers’ – as was the case, for instance, in Western Ukraine until 1956. There, a significant part of the population viewed the Red Army and the ‘Soviets’ as occupiers. Despite the severe repressions and muscular propaganda of the Soviet authorities, the Ukrainian population constantly supported the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its armed divisions.

Perhaps, then, we should declare that a large part of the population on today’s uncontrolled territories in Ukraine’s southeast consists of ‘cowards’? I doubt it. The settling of these territories occurred voluntarily or forcibly – mainly by convicts or ex-prisoners, runaway peasants, Cossacks, exiles and, finally, people who had escaped to the city from Soviet collective farms. These people were not afraid to take on difficult or even life-threatening work (coal-mining, chemical processing, and other labour-intensive work). It is therefore hard to believe that Russia’s propagandists needed only a few months in 2014 in order to transform the psyche of the millions of residents of the Donbass, the lion’s share of whom were born or grew up in independent Ukraine. And so we can reach only one conclusion – to wit, that on the uncontrolled territories of the Donbass, the majority of the population are not cowards but are instead opposed to the policies of official Kiev (the centre). Talk of a Russian ‘occupation’ here is hardly apposite or relevant.

‘Occupation’ is the result of military aggression. It presupposes the immediate and unconditional acceptance of appropriate official decisions by the victim of the aggression. This would include, for example, at least a declaration of war or of a state of war vis-à-vis the aggressor and the declaration of martial law (on all or parts of Ukrainian territory). And yet Kiev has not even dissolved the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia – ratified by the Rada and the Duma in 1998 – not to mention dozens of associated bilateral agreements.

In addition, the ‘anti-terrorist operations’ in the Donbass are today being conducted under the leadership of the counter-intelligence organ of Ukraine (SBY), to which subordinate regular parts and divisions of the national armed forces. Meanwhile, many Ukrainian oligarchs continue to support business and commercial ties with Russia or have actual businesses in Russia. Many Ukrainian analysts and experts openly participate in political television and radio shows in Moscow. We could little imagine such behaviour when Ukraine was occupied – truly occupied – by Nazi Germany in WW2. Some ‘occupation,’ then.

YR: For all intents and purposes, the Maidan uprising in 2014 stood before a dilemma – to continue the fight against the oligarchic state under conditions of effective invasion from Russia, risking the total destruction of the state (as happened in Ukrainian history in 1918), or to turn to the fight against Russia, in an attempt to change the oligarchic state from within. The allies of Maidan chose the second path. Tens of thousands of Maidan activists suddenly found themselves working in state institutions and in the army, although the highest heights of state power and influence were still held by the representatives of the old elite. In other words, the ancien régime began to fade and crumble, but it still controlled the governing processes of the state and society. This was aided by the conservative-paternalistic moods or spirits of Ukrainian society – a society that supports elitist politics and is at the same time sensitive to populism.

Consider, for example, that the research at our institute demonstrates that 75 percent of Ukrainians are opposed to the sale of agricultural lands, while 82 percent are opposed to the sale of such lands to foreigners. Ukraine’s agro-barons regularly use this popular disposition in order to preserve the existing character of (their) control over lands, allowing them to rent lands for little while earning significant profits through international exports.

GS: I cannot disagree here. The only question that comes to mind here is: who is using this dilemma in their interests? In principle, it is the Russian political leadership: they evidently could have stopped at the Crimean annexation, but in openly and provocatively interfering in the complex processes unfolding at the time in the Donbass after Maidan forced the Ukrainian public to drop the project of dismantling the oligarchic state. Perhaps there was a calculus here by Moscow, as it is completely obvious that the Donbass, with its industry and population, has never been, and will never be, of especial economic or strategic (military) interest for Russia. If this was the case, then it is not impossible that interference in ‘Ukrainian affairs’ was recommended to President Putin by Russia’s own oligarchs as a means of preventing the dismantling of the oligarchic state – possibly on the logic that any Ukrainian success in this dismantling would have forced a similar dismantling push in Russia. In other words, it would have set the stage for a Maidan in Moscow.

However, for over three years now, we have witnessed the empowerment of thousands of Maidan activists and the changing of key state posts in favour of representatives of the ‘new’ elite, not to mention the advent of foreign ‘specialists’ to high positions. And yet none of this has led to material improvement in state or public administration and, accordingly, in the lives of regular people. Moreover, every day we learn of new facts about how the ‘new’ have surprisingly come to resemble the old in terms of the use of civil servant and state positions in their interests, corruption, and so on.

These new elites also began to argue very quickly among themselves in the fight for resources and levers of powers. Meanwhile, in the country’s parliament, the past heroes of the Maidan periodically jump from party to party, while also maligning and defaming each other on television or from the parliamentary tribune. True, they often wear embroideries and sing the national anthem of Ukraine. They go to church. This juxtaposition has led to the population’s confidence in all branches of power being catastrophically low. However, it is not the ‘conservative-paternalistic’ moods of Ukrainian society that have not allowed the people to approve of this ‘new’ elite, as Ukraine’s society is in principle just as conservative as, say, that of Poland. (There is nothing essentially strange or wrong with this. Indeed, I would not overstate Ukraine’s paternalistic instincts, although this is a fairly common thesis among Ukrainian economists and sociologists. But while there are certainly such instincts in Ukraine, there are an order of magnitude less intense than in, say, Russia.)

Because of Ukraine’s harsh past, Ukrainians have always tended to rely more on themselves – indeed, this is a key source of our national strength and survival in difficult times. And yet, on this logic, Ukrainians are extremely sensitive to matters of justice, which is why many Ukrainians increasingly believe that those who dressed up as Maidan activists and later ended up in power simply lied to them.


Yuriy Romanenko is co-founder of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, in Kiev.

Grigoriy Sytnik is president of the Academy for National Security in Kiev, and past professor in Ukraine’s National Academy of Public Administration.


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