Going Round in Circles
Russia Profile

Ukraine Will Hold Free and Fair Elections in 2010, but Clan Politics Stand in the Way of Mature Democracy in Ukraine.

January 17, 2010, Ukraine will hold its presidential elections. The
campaign, which has already kicked off, promises to be tense,
acrimonious and viciously competitive. The contest is not likely to be
resolved in the first round, and a run-off will be necessary to
determine the winner. The incumbent, Viktor Yushchenko, appears
destined to end his political career as a one-term president: he proved
to be an extremely weak and erratic politician who squandered the
immense political capital he earned when he was elected in 2004.

matter how many contestants participate in the race, the true battle is
between the two front-runners: Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and
Viktor Yanukovich, leader of the opposition Party of Regions and
Yushchenko’s bitter rival in the 2004 polls.

So what are the
implications of a victory from one of these two? Will a new leader be
able to stabilize Ukraine’s chaotic politics and lead a breakthrough
toward a more mature form of democracy? I, for one, am not holding my
breath. If Russia, according to one astute pundit, is “lost in
transition,” then Ukraine, too, I would argue, is lost in transition –
albeit in its own peculiar way, quite distinct from Russia’s. To
understand why the upcoming polls are unlikely to bring about any
dramatic change, we need to put the current contest into the broader
political and social context.

It is absolutely vital to
comprehend Ukraine’s post-1991 political trajectory. And to be sure, it
should not be understood teleologically, that is – as a triumphant
march away from the dark totalitarian past and toward the radiant
future of liberal democracy. It is more fruitful to understand
Ukraine’s evolution not as a linear, but rather as a circular process.

key moments define Ukraine’s political history since the collapse of
the Soviet Union. The first was of course gaining independence in 1991
and building its own system of governance that – due to a number of
historical, cultural and political reasons – ended up being a kind of
pluralism by default. The second was the attempt by former President
Leonid Kuchma to consolidate an authoritarian regime during his second
term at the end of the 1990s. The third was the 2004 political upheaval
(popularly known as the Orange Revolution) that thwarted the drive
toward super-presidentialism and consolidated authoritarianism.

would be utterly misleading, however, to portray the 2004 events as the
political catharsis that ushered in an era of liberal democracy in
Ukraine. It was clearly not a revolution in the strict sense of the
word. Rather, it was – as some analysts perceptively suggest – a
restoration of sorts of the status quo ante – a move toward the
situation that preceded Kuchma’s resolute drive toward consolidated
authoritarianism. Through the intra-elite agreement to change the
country’s constitutional design, Ukraine appears to have come full
circle: from chaotic pluralism to the attempt to establish the
indisputable political dominance of the executive and back again. As a
result, the threat of authoritarianism has diminished but the danger of
domestic infighting and squabbles amongst the elite – with their usual
outcome being stalemate and immobility – has increased.

can claim credit for holding free and fair elections. But while polls
are necessary for building mature democracy, they alone do not suffice.
Under certain circumstances, chaotic pluralism can evolve into a more
mature democratic system. At the present moment, however, Ukraine’s
chaotic pluralism is the reflection of a specific political system that
might be termed the “balance of the clans.” In Ukraine, the real
political actors are not parties but oligarchic clans built around a
dozen or so powerful financial-industrial groups.

In a nutshell,
the key features of this system are as follows: firstly, a merging of
business and politics where “parties” are mere instruments that
oligarchic clans use in the struggle for power and resources; secondly,
a lack of clear-cut and meaningful ideological foundations underpinning
the activity of the leading political forces;  thirdly, manipulation
and the so-called “political technologies” as the main tools employed
in the political struggle.

So long as this system of the balance
of the clans persists, any election will only lead to a regrouping of
the oligarchic elites in the top echelons of power. Under the
prevailing conditions in Ukraine, no polls are able to put an end to
the constant bickering among clans which ultimately results in
political stalemate. Unless Ukraine finds a way to strengthen key
institutions (the principal ones being political parties, the courts
and the system of civil service) and tackle the problem of pervasive
corruption, chaotic pluralism will be perpetuated and the danger of
slipping back to authoritarianism will remain lurking around the corner.

has always played a role in Ukraine’s domestic political contests –
suffice it to remember the Kremlin’s overzealous rooting for Yanukovich
back in 2004 that famously ended in utter embarrassment. Remarkably, it
is precisely Ukraine’s pluralist and fragmented political scene – the
lack of a clear favorite and the inability of one single oligarchic
clan to claim an indisputable victory – that compel all the competitors
in the Ukrainian presidential race to seek, whether overtly or
covertly, Moscow’s backing. But here’s a paradox that is destined to
bring constant disappointment to Moscow: there are no pro-Russian
political forces in Ukraine. Neither President Tymoshenko, nor
President Yanukovich would be prepared to do Moscow’s bidding. Both are
pragmatic politicians who will be pursuing Ukraine’s interests as they
understand them, not Russia’s. It is also important to remember that
both Ukrainian frontrunners are representatives of powerful
industrial-financial groups that are viciously competing with their
Russian opposite numbers in the world markets. The Ukrainian oligarchs
who bankroll Yanukovich and Tymoshenko campaigns are not particularly
excited to see the positions of their Russian competitors strengthened
in Ukraine.

If the Kremlin is able to see things clearly, it
cannot do better than admit that it doesn’t have a dog in Ukraine’s
presidential fight.