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.

On 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.

No 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.

Three 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.

It 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.

Ukraine 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.

Russia 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.