By JOSPEH VERBOVSZKY
BOLOGNA — There is no shortage of crude graffiti scrawled along the streets of Kiev, blazing “Heroes never die.” There is no shortage of soldiers and militiamen, too young and too old, who buy their uniforms from the local army surplus store and board trains to die on the front. There is no shortage of candles for the martyrs’ shrine on Maidan. Yet, even so, there is no individual or collective effort heroic enough to accomplish the herculean task of dragging the country out of a twenty-five year mire of corruption, stagnation, and “muddling through.” More importantly, there are no heroes to oppose the system that led to this situation in the first place: the oligarchy. Instead, having survived the short-lived democratic rebellion of Maidan, the oligarchy has evolved, and indeed, in a most dangerous direction. Feeding off of the weakened state structures and vacuum of power, individual oligarchs have enhanced their influence and transformed it into raw political and even military power. As such, the developments in Ukraine since the Maidan revolution of last February indicate not the creation of a democratic Ukraine but rather an increasingly feudal one.
Origins: Oligarchic Democracy
Already during Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika in the late 1980s, officials within the Communist Party began amassing capital. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they used this capital to purchase whole industries, laying the groundwork for the oligarchy that was solidified under Ukraine’s president Kuchma after 1994. After Kuchma’s election, oligarchic clans began to form around both regions and industries, the two most powerful clans centered in Donetzk around metallurgy and in Dnieprpetrovsk around the finance sector. Oligarchic democracy functioned through competition among the oligarchic groups for increased political influence for the sake of enriching themselves. During Kuchma’s tenure, the pre-eminent group was the Dnieprpetrovsk clan; after the Orange revolution, the Dnieprpetrovsk clan shared its position with the less-powerful Kyiv clan. Finally, following Victor Yanukovich’s victory in 2009, the Donetzk clan became the most powerful. At the time of the Maidan Revolution in February of 2014, all major industries and news channels were under the control of various oligarchs.
Oligarchs at War
The Maidan Revolution succeeded in bringing back the use of force as a means of effecting legitimate political change. The abrogation of the EU-brokered agreement on February 21 and the subsequent recognition by the West of the new transitional government set the precedent for political change to be effected outside the legally established system. Added to that, the failure of the Ukrainian government to respond to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the formation of volunteer brigades across the country meant the state had also lost the monopoly of violence. This was only exacerbated when the anti-terror operation was launched, leading to the current civil war. As the war continued, both state institutions as well as civil society weakened while individual oligarchs grew stronger, exposing the extent to which the oligarchic system has completely penetrated Ukrainian society.
During this period, the Ukrainian state failed in its centralization efforts. Suffering reversals at the hands of the Russian-backed separatists and unable to control the volunteer battalions, the central government lost legitimacy as a guarantor of state sovereignty. Likewise, the politics of corruption and influence continued even after the parliamentary elections in October, with a clear division visible between President Poroschenko’s Bloc and Prime Minister Yatseniuk’s Party. Even more telling, the government has been unable to execute any of its planned reforms to eradicate corruption. Instead, the central government has begun importing its ministers from abroad, including Finance Minister Jaresko (USA), Minister of Economy and Trade Abromavicius (Lithuania), and Health Minister Kvitashvili (Georgia). A number of the lower level administrators have also been replaced with foreigners, demonstrating the lack of competence and reliability among local candidates.
Likewise, civil society, which has always been weak in Ukraine, has been further weakened by the war. While some watchdog organizations did indeed send candidates to the Ukrainian parliament, their influence over politics has been negligible. Meanwhile, the oligarchs have become the only force in Ukraine that can impact politics. However, the competition among them for state resources and influence is turning more and more toward political confrontation.
From Oligarchy to Feudalism
If the trend of personal enrichment continues at the expense of the state, individual oligarchs will grow more powerful while the central state, as well as the idea of a unified Ukraine, slips away. De facto centralization is currently the future of Ukraine, with the ultimate form seeing each region controlled and administered independently by an oligarch or local authority. In the case of Kolomoiskiy, it could even be multiple regions. This is made more likely each day as the Ukrainian army is stretched thin along the front against the separatists and continuously demonstrates its ineffectiveness in maintaining sovereign security. However, the kind of outside influence that the West would have to employ to rectify the situation and maintain a sovereign and unified Ukraine would be far more than most would like. Not only would it require tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars, but also physical control over state administration and possibly even military control over territory. In either case, the prospects for a sovereign and unified Ukraine slip to zero.
“When the Beating of your Heart Echoes the Beating of the Drums”
One final possibility involves the return of civil society, but not in the form that would seem normal in the West. Currently, the most effective form of social solidarity involves the volunteer battalions and their supporters. Mothers and wives collect donations and organize events to support the fighters on the front, paying for uniforms and food supplies. As the army becomes weaker, it is possible that these organizations could become stronger and, to the extent that they are not controlled by oligarchs, could play a literally revolutionary role in changing society. Currently, there are dozens of these organizations and their number is only likely to increase. They are also often locally organized and armed, making it difficult to both track and control them. Likewise, the increasing nationalistic rhetoric of the media channels increases the battalions’ legitimacy as the true heroes of Ukraine. In a vacuum of power and continuing delegitimation of a state controlled by parties identified with oligarchy and corruption, an idealistic force of fighters could be the next Maidan, albeit one much more violent than what we have seen until now.