By Dmitriy Korotkov
Translated from Russian by J.Hawk
“Chase out the band!” was the main slogan of the uprising that took place exactly a year ago. The Maidan promised a traditional revolutionary transformation of the very foundations of the state. Though it’s not important what the Maidan promised. It’s important what it delivered. Especially in comparison with that which was destroyed.
1. The Government
In spite of the numerous accusations of “dictatorship” and “authoritarianism,” Yanukovych’s government was weaker than the current one. Any political regime is stable only when it has unconditional support of a significant social or national group. In contrast to Putin or Lukashenko, Yanukovych did not have that level of support. He got the votes of the South-East because he was “their own,” or because he was the lesser evil in comparison with the pro-Western politicians, but nobody was enthusiastic about him. Yanukovych was able to balance the business ambitions of his Family, of various oligarch clans, the West, and Russia, but by the end of 2013 it ran out of the room for maneuver and it faced a severe crisis. It could only be resolved by capitulation or a violent crack-down. Yanukovych chose neither, but instead simply ran.
But even when the regime was in bloom, Yanukovych’s “dictatorship” was fiction because of his lack of reliable support. Moreover, having to confirm its legitimacy in the eyes of the West, the regime had roped itself in, and the fear of a new Maidan forced it to avoid social reforms or attempts to limit democracy.
The current government, with all of its outward weakness, is far more stable. First of all, it has the support of the passionate part of society, whose position always matters more than the position of the passive majority. So the passive majority does not want to go fight? So what, if the majority of journalists, activists, and other engaged people want the war to continue. They feel that as long as there is a war, it’s best not to pick on the government, while the passive majority will get its draft notices and will go to fight irrespective of its wishes. Secondly, the government does not need to establish its legitimacy vis-à-vis the West: US and EU governments which facilitated its seizure now have to turn a blind eye on the repressive measures it undertakes to strengthen its position. No matter what harsh measures the Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk-Turchinov trio adopt to preserve their power, nobody doubts that the passionate part of society will support them, and the West will ignore any turning of the screws, even though they’d not have forgiven Yanukovych for far lesser infractions.
Therefore the government can get away with anything as long as it has those two pillars of support. But it will be dealt with far more harshly than Yanukovych was should it lose those pillars. For example, due to the military defeats on the front, the economic collapse, or other events that will undermine the patience of not only the society, but the committed factions and the power structures.
There is a widespread opinion that under Yanukovych the opposition was strong, and now it is weak. This is half-true. The opposition was weak, and it played behind-the-scenes games. What made it strong was Yanukovych’s weakness, and the support by the West and the committed factions of society. The alliance of these forces was sufficient to deter the government.
As far as the current opposition is concerned, it simply doesn’t exist. The “opposition bloc” and other such splinters are not opposition but the former government which became unused to being in opposition, and which are only trying to find a place themselves in a new reality. The votes the Opposition Bloc received were in fact votes cast against the current government, in the hopes that a new political force will appear that will present an alternative to the current regime.
However, no such alternative can appear under conditions where any protest can be framed as “separatism” or “Moscow provocation.” Therefore a strong opposition can appear only under two conditions. First, if it appears within the elite (for example, in the event of a schism between Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko, or if Sadovoy [of the Self-Help Party, based in Lvov] begins to play an independent game). Second, if the government (possibly due to schisms) weakens to such an extent that big business which is unhappy with the state of affairs, will create its own opposition bloc on the basis of the Opposition Block, and which will be based in the south-eastern regions. To be sure, this would require the war to end. Otherwise any attempts to create an opposition will be thwarted using “the laws of wartime.” Nevertheless, there is a great deal of antagonism between the government and much of the society, and this antagonism is growing stronger as the situation in the country grows worse. As a minimum, one can identify four big dissatisfied groupings. The first are the oligarchs and many small and medium entrepreneurs whose businesses are collapsing due to the war, the loss of economic ties to Russia, and government policies which reduce spending without cracking down on corruption. The second is a sizable proportion of the population of the south-east which will never accept the Maidan, the war, or the government’s ideology. The third are the disappointed supporters of the Maidan The fourth is the legal system and the representatives of the security/enforcement agencies (MVD, prosecutor’s office, SBU, some of the cadre officers of the regular UAF), which are skeptical of the Maidan, unhappy with the government and its personnel policy, and which suffer casualties in combat due to inept leadership. One can theoretically form genuine opposition under the two conditions listed above.
The ideology or lack thereof have always been one of the main factors determining the strength or weakness of the government. Yanukovych’s weakness lie in its absence. True, some of its representatives, with Dmitriy Tabachnik at the forefront, tried to create the only possible reliable pillar of support for the regime in the shape of the committed segment of south-east. They tried to convince the president to confirm the post-Soviet ideological markets, but received neither understanding nor support from the president. The current government adopted a nationalist ideology with an anti-Russian idea at its core (which, incidentally, Russia facilitated through its seizure of Crimea). The country is experiencing the destruction of Soviet values, the elimination of Russia’s influence (the ban on Russian TV channels and movies), with the parallel installation (though still mainly through words, not deeds) of the nationalist ideology. All of it is supposed to preserve the regime’s pillars of support in Western and Central Ukraine, and also to spread the influence of this ideology on southern and eastern parts of the country.
The latter part so far has not gone well. The split within the country not only did not disappear, but it has grown worse due to the differences in attitudes toward the government, the war, Russia, and other factors. The South-East is laying low because it does not see the prospects for success in active struggle. But the calm may be temporary (see point 2).
4. Freedom of Speech
In its attempts to strengthen itself and to establish ideological dominance, the government is forced to actively suppress the freedom of speech. One has to acknowledge Yanukovych also showed similar tendencies, but during his rule the media remained outside of his control, and was dependent either on the oligarchs or on the West which supported opposition media. As a result the most that the government could do is to obtain the loyalty of the oligarch media and to marginalize the opposition media. But the media’s position during the Maidan shows that Yanukovych’s system of media control was an illusion.
Now the space for opposition media in Ukraine is very narrow. Any, even marginal, media site that tries to publish even a small fraction of criticism that official media published about Yanukovych will get demolished by the “activists”, and on the next day it will be shut down and repressed “for treason.”
Oligarch media continue to exist, and the oligarchs are trying to preserve their relative independence. But even they have been chased into certain ideological limits, which force them to adhere to the pro-government line on most key issues, leaving only a small window for criticism of individual members of the government. But even that window may soon close, judging by the trends.
5. Social Policies
When it comes to intentions, the past and current regimes were identical. In terms of deeds, there is a chasm separating them.
The Yanukovych team tried in 2010-11 to push threw a number of liberal and anti-social reforms which were dictated either by the IMF or by objective reality (the over-burdening of state budget). But the only measures that were implemented were the increase of women’s retirement age from 55 to 60 years and the one-time increase in the price of gas and utility payments in 2010. Attempts to reduce the benefits to Chernobyl veterans, Afghanistan veterans, war orphans, or the efforts to change the tax system under which the majority of population pays no taxes only caused “little Maidans” and forced the shut-down of reforms. By the end of 2013 Yanukovych abandoned all attempts to reduce the welfare state, and turned his attention to closing the budget gap through agreements with Russia (credits and cheap gas), and to increase the tax burden on the oligarchs, which ultimately caused his downfall.
The current regime has no limiting factors in its anti-social policies. In spite of a three-fold devaluation of the hryvnya and the reduction in the standard of living, the government increased the price of gas and utilities in 2014, will continue the process in 2015, and has no plans to stop the process. The government abdicated most of its social obligations in one fell swoop. It reduced salaries of most state employees and social payments from the state budget, while at the same time it froze pensions. They are not doing it because they heartless, but it’s the consequence of the foreign and domestic policy orientation (West, IMF, war) that it adopted by choice or by necessity.
6. Foreign Policy
Yanukovych pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy which it inherited from the times of Leonid Kuchma. The former president tried to balance pro-Russian and pro-Western policies, struggling to delay the moment of choice. By 2013 everyone knew that the time to choose had come, and Yanukovych made that choice in favor of the pro-Russian course over the pro-European one, which was unexpected to many.
This choice was forced mainly by internal factors: the refusal to adopt anti-social reforms and the need to close the budget gap with cheap energy, and also the desire to reintegrate the industry into the post-Soviet space. However, Yanukovych proved unable to defend that choice and found himself in exile.
The new government was doomed, by its own slogans and obligations, to take a pro-Western course, therefore it got that which Yanukovych tried to avoid: harsh anti-social conditions from the IMF, and the political-economic conflict with Russia. Even though there are no signs suggesting Ukraine’s social-economic situation will improve, the current government cannot abandon its course.
Any citizen coming with contact with government agencies knows perfectly well that corruption has not grown less prevalent over the last year. But it changed its appearance.
Yanukovych spent the four years in power on building a vertical system, in which only the people at the top steal, while the lower levels get a percentage. With the fall of Yanukovych corruption returned to the state it was in prior to 2010: every official takes as much as he wants and decides whether to share the loot with superiors. The current government declares its desire to fight corruption and is even creating a special agency, but it has even fewer chances to defeat it than Yanukovych. Especially since the freeze or reduction of state salaries and the constant personnel reshuffling cause even low-level officials to try to steal as much as possible before they are fired as a result of yet another wave of “lustration”, purge, or other revolutionary happenings. Incidentally, the senior leadership is not far behind (because its members change often, plus you have to pay those who appointed you). The Federation of Employers estimates that since the Maidan, government officials stole 100 billion hryvnya. When the economy is collapsing corruption is one of the measures where one can count on a big return on investment, therefore everyone who can resort to it, does.
8. The Legal System
In the last four years the legal system experienced the same changes as corruption: an inexorable drift toward centralization, in an effort to establish a system in which only the president’s office has influence on affairs. But the destruction of the old system means that the courts have for the first time received a high degree of autonomy. However, that in no way pleases the government or Maidan activists. The legal activists is facing constant accusations from the radicals, SBU, and Prosecutor’s Office. The Rada is considering a law that would restore the right to control judges to the president. But none of these levers are effective yet. Therefore courts sometime make rulings which are inconvenient to the government, which could not be imagined in the last years of Yanukovych’s rule.