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Last month, when Ukrainians celebrated the first anniversary of the start of the EuroMaidan Revolution, there were no European Union flags waving on Kyiv’s central square. The scene was reminiscent of when students first took to the streets on November 21, 2013 to protest former President Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime. Indeed, the ongoing crisis has again brought to the fore many of the impulses that ignited the first round of protests on Kyiv’s Independence Square. Since the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainians have again become more concerned with the domestic character of their country, and less concerned with its orientation toward Russia or the West.
Still, it is important to remember that local influences will play a crucial role in any resolution of the conflict in Donbas. Local thugs, many with competing agendas, now control large parts of Luhansk and Donetsk: “For all Russia’s influence in eastern Ukraine, a motley group of local leaders—from ex-businessmen to academics and pro-Russia activists—has sprung up and seized control,” according to a vivid rogues gallery account filed by Courtney Weaver from the Financial Times from Donetsk. The separatist territories are now essentially fiefdoms ruled by multiple masters, not Moscow. As Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have argued, their political logic can be compared to the “feudal democratic” systems that other Russia-backed breakaway regions have developed, “in which local leaders routinely stage sham elections and base their power on mafia-style corruption and patronage.” Nothing better characterizes the feudal mindset than Luhansk People’s Republic leader Igor Plotnitsky’s decision to challenge Petro Poroshenko to a duel.
Ukraine may be heading not toward federalization or decentralization, but feudalization. In 2011, Russia was described as a neo-feudal state by Vladislav Inozemtsev, who wrote that the system’s “strength emanates from one basic principle: it is much easier for subjects to solve their problems individually than to challenge national institutions collectively.” As a symptom, “corruption in Russia is a form of transactional grease in the absence of any generally accepted and legally codified alternative. Taken together, these transactions well describe a form of neo-feudalism,”… a “stage that Russian socio-economic development had reached when it was frozen by more than seventy years of Communist rule.”
There are five factors that may contribute to the feudalization of Ukraine.
First, poverty: Ukraine’s financial and economic woes are sending the middle class back in time. Ukrainians are now 20 percent poorer than at the breakup of the Soviet Union. The paltry average monthly wage (3400 hryvnia, or 218 dollars) is putting families under increasing duress, leaving many struggling to pay for basic needs. The newly adopted government “austerity” program will contribute to growing poverty. At the same time, crime is on the rise, by as much as 40 percent, according to some estimates. Car hijacking and armed muggings are among the fastest growing forms of criminal activity.
Second, surveys reveal paternalistic behavior in society. On the surface, “Ukrainians want more accountable governance but are not ready to be responsible for it. Most of them are in support of greater transparency and accountability but few of them are ready to take steps to achieve it. Ukrainians do not want to see parliamentarians who have a history of power abuse and corruption (84 percent) or hide their sources of income (83 percent). At the same time, very few think that voters should fund the parties they vote for (15 percent) and many are fine with rich people funding parties (41 percent),” according to a recent GFK poll commissioned by Pact, a U.S. NGO. Though Ukraine remains the most corrupt country in Europe, today, Ukrainians are planning less and less to engage in fighting corruption (8 percent) or monitoring governmental work (5 percent), while less than one percent actually reported corrupt practices to relevant law enforcement agencies or anti-corruption institutions.
Third, oligarchs have returned as patrons of parliamentary politics and are emerging as regional “landlords.” The growing strength of oligarch-governors is the best example of how regional power relations have started centering around wealthy patrons; as Serhiy Kudelia has explained, the takeover of central government buildings in the regions during the EuroMaidan Revolution strengthened oligarch-governors’ “pockets of self-rule.” This is trend is particularly evident in single mandate districts, where electoral misconduct, including widespread vote buying by a small number of wealthy individuals, was rampant. Such patronage was on display in the Trans-Carpathians, where four of six Rada seats went to the Baloga brothers, who have long been the poster boys for corruption and nepotism in Ukraine.
Fourth, the central authorities are struggling to consolidate power, while the patrimonial nature of politics—what Inozemtsev has called Russia’s biggest barrier to effective governance—is increasing. Perhaps the most worrisome is the incorporation of volunteer battalions under top officials. As Leonid Bershidsky has argued, the way that “Ukraine’s truly foreigner ministers” were appointed—with no debate—is indicative of an increasingly patrimonial brand of politics. The government voted in a similar fashion for the hastily prepared government program out of deference to a “request from the president.” Poroshenko has also put close (family and business) associates in charge of the newly-formed Ministry of Information (which has been dubbed “The Ministry of Truth”), which is one more reminder that clan politics remain an important force in Ukrainian governance. The new Cabinet of Ministers was formed by the presidential administration and voted into law on a single ballot. What’s more, patrimonial conflicts are now brewing between Ukraine’s ruling triumvirate: President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Dnipropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoisky.
Fifth, decentralization will highlight regional differences and force local leaders to implement reforms tailored for these differences even as they also aid patrimonial governance patterns. Because Ukraine is an ethnically diverse country, governance should embrace diversity rather than imposing unity and centralization.
Ukraine is not inexorably headed toward feudalism. There is no doubt that the country has become more pro-European in the last year, and the momentum behind reforms has never been greater. Ties with Europe are expected to grow rapidly, though economic realities will keep Ukraine at least partially in Russia’s embrace. But as the national currency slumps, the opportunities for Ukrainians to travel have decreased dramatically; Ukrainians must see and experience Europe more if they hope to one day join it.
There are at least two roads for Ukraine to travel down: a European one and a feudalistic one. The new Verkhovna Rada’s first session suggested that those claiming to represent the EuroMaidan may actually be in opposition to the pro-European bloc; indeed, they either voted against the new cabinet or abstained from the vote altogether.
If Ukraine is to learn one lesson from Central Europe, it should be that history did not come to a screeching halt with EU and NATO integration. Education, healthcare, social welfare, and military reforms should be made parallel to the integration effort with mobilizing and making local resources more transparent and managed more effectively. The focus should not only be on central, macro-level reforms but also on building civil society to make those larger reforms sustainable. The West can only assist Ukrainians if they are willing to help themselves. Together they should find a decent modus operandi, using their own solutions instead of expecting that “integration” will be done for them.
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