Ukraine One Year After Maidan: Analysis

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 2/23/2015

Before and After Maidan

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.

2. Opposition

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.

3. Ideology

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.

7. Corruption

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.

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