Wynnyckyj: Russia’s threat to Ukraine

14 04 2014

In “The Permanent Threat to Ukraine’s Existence,” political sociologist Mykhailo Wynnyckyj provides a provocative analysis of the current situation in Ukraine vis-a-vis its Russian neighbor. (Since the Kyiv Post enforces an article limit for non-subscribers, I’ll quote liberally from the article below.)

While Wynnyckyj’s larger argument about Ukraine’s “existential threat” may be overdrawn, he articulates the perspective of a Maidan insider very well.

For instance, most Maidan activists would agree with Wynnycky’s articulation of the 3 key points of the “Revolution of Dignity”:

“1) National liberation – completion of the de-colonization process that had begun in 1991 (itself a continuation of the nation-building process rooted in 1918-21 and 1939-52 insurgencies and wartime proclamations of Ukrainian independence).

“2) De-feudalization – revolt against a thoroughly corrupt, neo-feudal, oligarchic regime that had privatized and monopolized large sections of Ukraine’s economy, and had created an economic and regulatory environment that was hostile to both independent business and to foreign investors.

“3) Justice – a battle to restore (or perhaps construct) a social order that Ukraine’s population accepts as legitimate; where the state is responsive to a full range of popular demands (i.e. from a very basic demand for safety – citizens are not beaten and shot by police in the streets – to a more complicated demand for “voice” in decision-making).”

Wynnyckyj interprets these as mapping conveniently onto the 3 key questions that a polity ought to answer as it “transitions” to democracy, according to “transitological” sociologists of the 1990s, namely: “Who we are as a community? [. . .] Who is to rule and how? [. . .] How is wealth to be distributed?”

He continues:

“Since the collapse of the USSR, in a gradual process, Ukraine’s elite seems to have come to some level of consensus regarding the above three questions:

“1) In 1996, with the adoption of the Constitution, political consensus was achieved as to the Ukrainian “political nation”: established within its Soviet-era republican borders, with state symbols adopted from the 1918-1919 Hrushevsky and Petliura governments, and with a single official state language as the mechanism for long-term Ukrainianization in the context of short-term linguistic pluralism. Clearly, not everyone within Ukraine (nor in its diaspora) accepted such a liberal definition of Ukraine’s identity-project, but for almost 20 years, its basic tenets were not questioned by the country’s political elite.

“2) The question of Ukraine’s governance model was hotly contested prior to and during the Orange Revolution of 2004 (as reflected in multiple drafts of Constitutional Amendments tabled in the pre-Orange Verkhovna Rada). The 1996 Constitution had established a unitary state with a strong Presidency which, in the context of complete economic and institutional collapse during the 1990’s, may have been necessary, but with the rise of regional elites, and structuration of several strong political parties (largely based on these regional elites and their leaders), some degree of decentralization was clearly required. The exact model for such decentralization, and the balance of power between the various branches of government was hotly contested throughout the Yushchenko Presidency. However, after the 2010 election, Yanukovych rejected these debates in favor of extreme centralization. Eventually this resulted in a slide into authoritarianism, and ultimately to a revolutionary reaction.

“3) The question of wealth distribution has been rarely dealt with seriously by Ukraine’s politicians except in populist discourse. Ideological political parties have not formed because traditional (for western democracies) issues of taxation, extent of government intervention in the economy, labor relations, etc. have simply not been on the agenda. Prior to the 2014 revolution, Ukrainian politicians and voters were preoccupied with settling issues related to the country’s governance model, and (less vocally) identity issues – socio-economic issues never really made it to the top of the political agenda.

“Had Ukraine’s revolution been allowed to proceed without external intervention from Russia, we would today be witnessing a rapid resolution of the “governance question”, and an evolution of discourse within the context of the ongoing Presidential election campaign into a more recognizable (for western observers) right/left ideological spectrum. Such a post-revolutionary election campaign would probably have been divisive with multiple candidates representing a variety of socio-economic groups realistically vying for power. As it stands, the Presidential campaign seems to be (almost) a foregone conclusion with Petro Poroshenko enjoying a solid lead in opinion polls, even though few voters have really examined his policy platform. In the context of Russia’s agression, the electorate simply seems to see Poroshenko as the best option for the position of “commander-in-chief”. And given this one-sidedness of the campaign, the expected post-revolutionary debates on economic issues (particularly salient given the current state of Ukraine’s public finances and currency) have not yet materialized. Furthermore the expected focus of debates on experience vs. elite renewal has remained peripheral to the political agenda.

“Post-revolutionary house cleaning and natural social progress have clearly been interrupted artificially: the Kremlin has insisted on returning Ukraine to the discursive frame of question 1 in the schema of democracy development – i.e. to a debate on identity. On the one hand, this forced step backward has laid bare the latent identity cleavages that naturally arise in a country the size of Ukraine. On the other hand, deep identity cleavages have not materialized to the extent expected by many observers of Ukraine. Specifically, there has been virtually no support for separatism (or even federalization) in the southern oblasts (Odesa, Mykolayiv, Kherson), nor in the east-central industrial heartland of Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhia – both regions that voted heavily for Yanukovych in 2010, and are primarily Russian-speaking. The separatist movement in Donetsk and Luhansk has adopted the regional Donbass identity (traditionally strong) rather than calling for annexation to Russia along the Crimean model. This makes it likely that any Russian intervention into the region during the coming days will eventually result in the creation of an Abkhazia-like unrecognized buffer state, rather than in the direct territorial expansion of the Russian Federation.

“Nevertheless, Russia seems intent on destabilizing Ukraine over the long term. Whereas in March it looked as though the Kremlin’s strategy was to rapidly invade and split the country into two (or more) rump states, the Kyiv government’s restraint in Crimea, coupled with the unexpectedly mooted support for separatism in all areas except the three eastern oblasts, seems to have sobered Putin’s ambitions somewhat. At the moment, he seems intent on biting off small chunks of territory at any given time, and therefore extending the advance on Kyiv for as long as necessary. On the one hand, this can be seen as a blessing to Ukraine: nothing congeals a linguistically diverse political nation as much as a very real external threat. On the other hand, Russia has made it eminently obvious that it itself is a rogue state (with nuclear weapons!) that presents a long-term existential threat to its neighbor(s). That fact changes the developmental dynamic of Ukraine – both domestically and internationally.”

The full article can be found here.






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