Ukraine and Russia: divergent political paths

About the author
Alexander Motyl is professor of political science and deputy director of the Center for Global Change and Governance at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

Here's a puzzle. Throughout the 1990s, Ukraine and Russia were quasi-democracies with authoritarian features. By 2001, they began moving in the direction of greater despotism. But then their paths diverged. Ukraine's trajectory shifted toward democracy during and after the "orange revolution" of late 2004. In contrast, President Vladimir Putin's Russia has become a full-fledged authoritarian state.

Why was Putin able to succeed in establishing a dictatorship while Ukraine's president Leonid Kuchma failed? Although differences in personality and leadership style matter, the answer lies in both countries' institutional legacies and the difference in their approaches to change.

The Soviet Union was an empire, but Ukraine and Russia occupied different places in the imperial structure. Ukraine was the object of imperial rule – a periphery – and emerged from the Soviet empire without a functioning state apparatus and skilled elite. Russia was the subject of that empire – the metropole – and inherited an imperial state apparatus and highly skilled elite. Ukraine lacked state institutions and was hard-pressed to pursue reform in their absence.

Russia possessed state institutions, but of a bloated and reactionary kind that served as an obstacle to democracy, the rule of law, and the market. Ukraine's first two presidents, Leonid Kravchuk (December 1991-July 1994) and Leonid Kuchma (July 1994 to January 2005), avoided radical change, thereby enabling political institutions and a strong democratic opposition to emerge. Russia's President Boris Yeltsin (December 1991-December 1999) pursued radical change and, tragically, thereby polarised Russia's political parties, weakened the state, and created an under-institutionalized political environment that facilitated the emergence of a strong anti-democratic ruler.

Alexander Motyl is professor of political science and deputy director of the Center for Global Change and Governance at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Among his books are Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993) and Imperial Ends: the decline, collapse, and revival of empires (Colombia 2001).

Also by Alexander Motyl on openDemocracy:

"How Ukrainians became citizens"
(November 2004)

"Democracy is alive in Ukraine"
(September 2005)

"Ukraine vs Russia: the politics of an energy crisis" (January 2006)

"Ukraine's new political complexion"
(March 2006)

Neighbours apart

Although the prevailing mood in Ukraine almost two years after the orange revolution is one of profound disappointment, Ukraine is a far different, and better, country today. It has opened itself to the world. It is democratic and free, even if chaotically so. Civil society and the media are robust, open debate is the norm, foreign direct investment has boomed, and the rule of law has improved. Ukraine remains poor and corrupt, but, unlike Belarus and Russia, it is anything but an authoritarian state with a dictatorial leader and a passive population.

How could a democratic breakthrough take place in a country known for systemic stasis and government deadlock? Paradoxically, the "stagnation" of the 1990s made the orange revolution possible. It takes time for institutions – or valued rules of the game – to take hold. They "stick" only after people use them repeatedly and come to view them as effective, valuable, and "natural". Since such rule-based behaviour evolves slowly, almost invisibly, many observers failed to see that Ukraine had become transformed since independence in 1991, when it was a post-totalitarian and post-imperial "space" without the institutions of a state, the rule of law, democracy, a market, and civil society.

That changed in the last fifteen years. A state apparatus and skilled administrative elites emerged, parties were established, regular elections were held, popular activism grew, and market relations took hold (today two-thirds of GDP is produced privately). Because all political players practiced "formal democracy", Ukraine's fractious parliament never submitted to the increasingly authoritarian president, Leonid Kuchma. That made him vulnerable to pressure from civil society and encouraged him to forge alliances with economic clans that benefited from crooked privatisation schemes. The result was a rough balance of power between parliament, president, civil society, and business.

Kuchma's illegitimate regime crumbled during the orange revolution, when civil society rose in protest, and parliament and the oligarchs stood on the sidelines. Constrained by a constitution invoked by everyone, the revolution's protagonists and antagonists resolved the crisis by negotiating (not by shooting, as in Russia in 1993), thereby enabling the people to elect Viktor Yushchenko president.

In stark contrast to his Ukrainian counterparts, Russia's Boris Yeltsin attempted to introduce radical change by means of "shock therapy" in the early 1990s. Although supported by many in the west, the policy was doomed to failure. A strategy of "revolution from above" could not work without the active intervention of the state, but the post-imperial Russian state bureaucracy was anything but revolutionary or even reformist. The inevitable failure of Yeltsin's attempted revolution fatally weakened the radical reformers as a political force. His policies also polarised the political spectrum, thereby leading to the consolidation of both the extreme left and the extreme right, undermining Russia's nascent democratic institutions, and enabling the president to emerge as Russia's supreme political figure.

Faced with chaotic economic change, polarised politics, and increasingly uncertain rules of the game, state ministries and provinces tried to grab as much authority as possible, both because it was there to be grabbed and because grabbing it protected them from the assaults of an imperious central government. The resulting fragmentation of the state enabled forces associated with one of the Soviet and Russian state's most efficient agencies – the secret police – to emerge in the late-Yeltsin era and take control of the government and, increasingly, the state. Small wonder that a former KGB officer – Putin – succeeded Yeltsin as president and that state consolidation became his overriding programmatic goal.

Since the revolutionary democrats appeared to have been responsible for the state's fragmentation, state consolidation assumed anti-democratic and anti-reformist dimensions. Under conditions such as these, the free press and civil society could easily be viewed as obstacles to state consolidation, especially when pursued under the auspices of the siloviki from the security services.

Since coming to power, Putin has methodically dismantled Yeltsin's quasi-democracy and replaced it with authoritarianism. He has muzzled the press, emasculated the parties and parliament, staffed the government with his cronies from the security services, co-opted the oligarchs, extended state control over the economy, and terrified civil society.

Hoping to appeal to Russians angry at the loss of empire and superpower status, Putin has also played on great-power and imperial nostalgia, nationalism, and patriotism, vowing to crush all of Russia's enemies, the Chechens in particular. In 2005, Putin even declared the collapse of the Soviet Union the "greatest tragedy of the 20th century." Were such changes taking place in the 1930s, they would be called fascist.

The lasting orange legacy

The rough power balance between parliament, president, civil society, and business in Ukraine ensures its continued democratic development. It also means that systemic change will remain incremental and frustrating. Unconsolidated democracies move slowly, Ukraine's constitution is a recipe for government volatility, and its corrupt political and business clans will resist reforms that undercut their interests.

The March 2006 parliamentary elections and their aftermath are a case in point. Ukrainians expected the elections to be fair and free, as indeed they were. The results – with 32% of the vote going to the Party of Regions (PR), 22% to the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, 14% to the pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc, 6% to the socialists, and 4% to the communists – were also accepted as legitimate.

The "blue" PR, which represents the oligarchic interests of Ukraine's Russian-speaking and anti-orange eastern rust belt, behaved democratically before, during, and after the ballot. Its leaders are demagogues and oligarchs, but they appear to know that the constitution is the only game in town. With the communists, whose candidate for president won 38% of the vote in 1999, having been demolished, the PR could now become Ukraine's equivalent of "post-communists".

Attempts by the orange forces – the Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the socialists – to form a governing coalition produced months of horse-trading and paralysed government. After they finally signed a coalition agreement in late June, some socialists bolted and joined the PR and communists, provoking further rounds of mud-slinging before the decision of Viktor Yushchenko to nominate Viktor Yanukovich as prime minister on 3 August brought the messy standoff to an end and inaugurated a new political phase.

Ukrainians were disgusted by their leaders' infantile shenanigans, but the seemingly endless post-electoral negotiations did show that Ukraine's politicians, like their counterparts in other democratic countries, were, despite deep personal animosities, resolving their differences according to the rules of the game.

Our Ukraine's parallel negotiations with the PR about a blue-orange coalition, like the socialists' decision to back the blue forces, also testified to an emerging consensus on centrist principles. Blue and orange agree that Ukraine should be an independent, democratic, multinational, and law-governed state with a market economy. They insist on the inviolability of the constitution; want a vibrant parliament; support a free press, a market economy, and cultural tolerance; and oppose Ukraine's fragmentation.

They believe further that Ukraine should enter the European Union and the World Trade Organisation and maintain good relations with Russia and the United States. Unsurprisingly, they also disagree violently on many policies, such as Ukraine's joining Nato, relations between Kyiv (Kiev) and the provinces, the pace of privatisation, and the status of the Russian language.

Notwithstanding the fireworks, Ukraine's squabbling elites are searching for, and finding, a modus vivendi in an institutionally democratic country that is as suited today as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were in 1989 to consolidate democracy and the market. Moreover, in contrast to the Kuchma years, Ukraine's politicians must also answer to an empowered population.

Some five million, primarily young, people took part in the orange revolution. For Ukrainians in general – and especially for those in the formerly quiescent blue eastern provinces – the revolution was a defining moment that forced them to abandon their apathy, take a stand, and become citizens. The PR faces an especially difficult task. It must adapt to democratic rules and answer to a mobilised populace that detests corrupt – even if Russian-speaking – oligarchs.

The Russian problem

Thanks to its enormous geographic, military, demographic, and economic size, Russia will always be a challenge for its non-Russian neighbours, Ukraine included. Sadly, Russia currently is, and is all too easily perceived as, also a threat to them because it has become – thanks in large part to Vladimir Putin's predilection for strong states, grandiose mythmaking, and zero-sum thinking – neo-imperial, xenophobic, authoritarian, and unstable.

The Kremlin hopes to resurrect a sphere of influence in the "near abroad". Too many Russians openly dislike non-Russians. Putin has constructed an unapologetically authoritarian state whose elites view democracy as a threat. And Russia is a "petro-state" beset with weak political institutions, inefficient government control of a resource-based economy, pervasive corruption, and high instability. Whatever such a post-Weimar Russia does – from waging a "gas war" against Ukraine to banning Georgian wine to promoting its legitimate economic and security interests – it evokes deep suspicion among non-Russians. That most Russians support Putin is even more cause for alarm.

Ukrainians have ambivalent feelings about Russia in general and Putin's Russia in particular. All speak Russian and know Russian culture intimately, and most have close ties with family and friends in Russia. But many also resent the general Russian disdain for Ukrainian language and culture and the widespread Russian view of Ukraine as a wayward province that will, in time, come to its senses and return to Mother Russia's fold. Over half of Ukrainians prefer the west to Russia, about one-fifth are unconditionally pro-Russian, and about one-third want to find a balance between Russia and the west. Thanks to Putin's neo-imperialism and authoritarianism, that third group has been placed into an untenable position and is tilting increasingly toward the west.

Kyiv's response to geopolitical reality and divided domestic loyalties has been, is, and will remain to try to maintain good relations with Europe, the United States, and Russia. The brute fact of an enormous Russia right next door means that Ukraine can never be too close to or too distant from it. No Ukrainian elite with even a minimal commitment to the independence of their own state can wilfully pursue the loss of sovereignty that an unconditionally pro-Russian policy would imply. Even the bombastically pro-Russian foreign policy of Alexander Lukashenko is premised on Belarus's continued existence. By the same token, neither can Ukraine's elites just snub their noses at Russia.

As a result, Ukraine has little choice but to pursue a foreign policy that is neither pro-Russian nor anti-Russian, but anti-anti-Russian. In turn, anti-anti-Russianness constrains the degree to which Ukrainian foreign policy can be pro-western. The foreign-policy behaviour of Ukraine's three presidents – Kravchuk, Kuchma, and Yushchenko – reinforces this point. Once elected, and regardless of whether their campaign slogans were more or less anti-Russian or more or less pro-western, all settled into the geopolitically determined space defined by the two poles of anti-anti-Russianism and moderate pro-westernism.

However hard it may be to satisfy the competing interests of all three, Kyiv has no alternative to a reactive "multi-vector" policy – unless Russia forces its hand. The more neo-imperial, xenophobic, authoritarian, and unstable Russia becomes, the more will Kyiv have to move toward the west, regardless of whether Ukraine has an orange, blue, or orange-blue government.

Russia's weakness

Although Ukraine looks weak, its political institutions are actually in pretty good shape. Russia looks strong, but its political institutions are weak and unstable. Just as revolution from above was not a viable option for Yeltsin, so authoritarianism is not a viable option for Putin. Although Putin may be in control of the Russian state, the state itself is brittle. Elites are at loggerheads, ministries promote their own interests and fight over budgetary outlays, and coordination and cooperation in the pursuit of policy ends is minimal.

The formal subordination of the regions and governors to the "super-governors" and the centre, for instance, by no means signifies that they really are beholden to Moscow's wishes. Quite the contrary, the regions are as avidly pursuing their interests today as they did in the past, but they are doing so less visibly and less vocally.

Because the state remains weak and the rule of law has not been consolidated, economic growth will continue to benefit at most a small segment of the population. The example of third-world states shows that authoritarian state-building can all too easily acquire pathological characteristics, especially when institutions are non-existent or weak. State building then becomes a source of patronage, and the state apparatus becomes an obstacle to modernisation.

Russia's ongoing transformation into a petro-state will only make things worse. Energy-based states with weak political institutions are always deeply corrupt states. They accumulate vast and easy wealth, which corrupt elites invariably misappropriate. And oil states are rarely stable.

Russia's turn toward neo-imperialism may be Putin's biggest mistake. Many Russians are angry at the loss of empire and feel humiliated by their demotion to the status of a "third-world country with the bomb." Putin has purposefully and effectively played the nationalist card and revived a variety of symbols associated with Russia's or the Soviet Union's glorious past. He has also appropriated a "tough guy" rhetoric, both at home and abroad, that bespeaks self-confidence and promises greatness. And he has acted vigorously in defence of the nation and the state, especially in Chechnya, where the war has become an uncompromising fight to the finish. It is not surprising that his popularity ratings remain extremely high.

Unfortunately, the combination of continuing state weakness and growing foreign-policy boldness is a recipe for "imperial overreach" and disaster. The tougher Russia gets, the tougher it sounds, the more it gets involved in playing the great power that it cannot be, the greater the gap between its aspirations and capabilities and the greater the likelihood of a systemic breakdown.

There is little reason to expect Putin to change course any time soon. The Russian people support him, and the Russian democrats are too weak to challenge him. The European Union has been quiet. And the United States has, thanks to the Bush administration's moral bankruptcy, lost the right to lecture the Russians. Russia's rush toward systemic breakdown is thus likely to continue. The crash will be messy, but when it comes, Russia will finally have no choice but to be a democratic state that pursues amicable relations with its neighbours.