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Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia: A Family Reunited?

For a short time, Ukraine was the democratic outlier. Twenty years after independence, has it come back to the authoritarian fold? From openDemocracy.

by Dmitri Travin 10 August 2011

Throughout the next month, Transitions will present a series of articles marking the anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.


Alyaksandr Lukashenk0
In the 1990s, one of the things that most tested the minds of the Moscow and St. Petersburg intellectual elite was the unusual nature of Belarusian politics. It was hard to understand why relatively democratic regimes has been established in Russia and Ukraine, but the openly authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenko had come to power in Minsk. It was not only those who thought Lukashenko was a tragedy for Belarus who had trouble understanding; the same was true for those who believed Lukashenko was a example for Russian President Boris Yeltsin to follow. (Yeltsin was himself no model democrat, but nonetheless allowed opposition of various forms in parliament and was willing to compromise with them). 


From about 2003 – that is, from the moment that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested – the nature of Russian intellectual discourse changed. No longer would a serious observer idealize the political regime taking shape in Moscow, and thus the question of Belarusian peculiarity was no longer particularly relevant. In its place came all kinds of analyses of Ukraine, which started to manifest itself as a model democracy when viewed against the wretched background of developments in Moscow and Minsk. 


Yulia Tymoshenko
The Ukrainian question attained particular resonance at the end of 2004, when the Orange Revolution began to unfold, and the opposition in the persons of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko were able to come to power on a wave of popular support. The democratically aligned Russian intelligentsia began to strongly idealize the Ukrainian events, forgetting that very similar events had taken place in Moscow in August 1991. Then, a large number of ordinary people came out against the so-called State Committee on the State of Emergency, which had removed the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from power, barricaded Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian national leadership in Yeltsin’s official residence, and had effectively introduced martial rule in the city. 


Then Yeltsin, relying on the support of Muscovites, was able to defeat the attempted coup. The events in Kyiv in 2004 in many respects remind one of those August days 20 years ago. Yet a “resemblance” theory was not entirely popular among intellectuals at the time, most likely because of the fact that, by 2004 and 2005, there was very little left of the democratic sentiment that had been present in the Moscow of 1991. 


The “unique democratism” of the Ukrainian population was instead explained in one of three ways: 


One. Ukrainians, unlike Russians, are not an imperial nation. As a result, they are more disposed toward freedom, while in Russia all too many yearn for the times of empire, when the USSR was one of the two military superpowers, thus compensating for many of life’s difficulties, poverty, and shortages in essential goods.


Two. The issue is not so much imperial ambitions as it is “distance from Dusseldorf.” This was the main expression used to indicate the cultural proximity of one country or another to Europe. It was thought that Ukraine was closer to Europe than Russia (including in a geographical sense), and for this reason it had in greater degree adopted European democratic values. 


Viktor Yanukovych
Three. The singularity of Ukraine’s politics is explained not by its cultural identity, but by the unique balance and correlation between its various interest groups. Unlike Russian and Belarusian elites, the Ukrainian elite is split. There is no way that Kyiv could act as a center of gravity in the way that either Moscow or Minsk could. Separate groups of influence are based in Donetsk, the center of Ukraine’s largest industrial region (and from where current Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych hails). Others are based in Dnipropetrovsk, a similarly strong industrial center (the origins of Yulia Tymoshenko, for example). Western Ukraine, meanwhile, is an entirely different world, closer “to Dusseldorf” than to other regions of the former USSR. This part of Ukraine is more nationalistic and thus stands in direct contrast to another important region, the Crimean peninsula, which for a long time was part of Russia, and only joined Ukraine in the 1950s.


I sense that it is precisely the third point that can most adequately explain any differences that exist among Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The complicated mechanism of balancing regional and elite interests provided for the fact that out of all post-Soviet countries, it was Ukraine that for a long time remained the most democratic (or, at least pretended to be the most democratic). It is certainly difficult to talk of Ukraine possessing an anti-imperialistic mentality, giving rise to anti-authoritarian tendencies, since the same logic would also suggest that Belarus should have the same mentality. As, indeed, should all other former Soviet states. Instead, what we clearly see today is that it is only the Baltic states, having joined the EU, who have demonstrated a disposition to the “game according to European-set rules.” 


The “distance to Dusseldorf” theory probably has a certain validity in the case of these Baltic states, since their cultural links to various European countries were incredibly important, even during Soviet times. But to apply it to Ukraine as a whole (and not, for example, to its Western parts) is quite another thing. Much more likely is that the relative democracy of Ukrainian politics was held together so long as contradictions remained among the interests of Kyiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Lviv (the largest town in Western Ukraine), and Simferopol (the principal city in Crimea). Today the political situation has become substantively different, which has in turn allowed Yanukovych to remold Ukraine in the Russian and Belarusian styles of authoritarian rule and open disrespect toward leaders of the opposition, who are now sent to prison


It is, of course, possible to interpret the arrest of Tymoshenko in the context of a battle against corruption. One certainly cannot discount the possibility that the former prime minister was not the embodiment of complete moral integrity. On the other hand, there is also a remarkable pattern of political opponents of authoritarian leaders in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia turning into lawbreakers of one kind or another (while the exposure of corruption in the close company of the rulers often turns out to be an exceptionally difficult and aimless affair).


This is not, one surmises, a case of prosecuting wrongdoing. In Russia, for example, a large number of today’s power brokers have broken the law in one way or another, whether that be by unpaid taxes or privatization deals. The letter of the law is actually applied, and punitively, only against those who position themselves in direct opposition to the Kremlin or, at the very least, refuse to play by the Kremlin’s rules. Not too long ago, we saw the public defenestration of the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, whose wife, Yelena Baturina, made enormous wealth during his time in office, becoming one of the richest people in Russia. Many suggest, with much justification, that there are very signficant grounds to investigate the two on charges of corruption. However, unlike both Khodorkovsky and Tymoshenko, Luzhkov remains free, and there are no indications that the Russian authorities are about to embark on a serious investigation of the origins of Baturina’s wealth. None of which is surprising: over the years that Putin and Medvedev were in power, Luzkhov remained a leading and loyal figure in the pro-Kremlin “United Russia” party. 


Yet it seems to me that an investigation into corruption in Yanukovych’s immediate company could lead to some no less interesting legal processes, not least to an investigation of corruption among the opposition. However, there is no sign of any other corruption case to compete with that of Tymoshenko. Which again leads one to assume that Yanukovych is instead motivated only by a desire to establish a more authoritarian kind of government in Ukraine, in the vein of Russia or Belarus. 


In principle, all post-Soviet countries share similar authoritarian tendencies. The only ones that stand out in any way are, on the one hand, the Baltic states, with their more European mentalities and, on the other hand, Islamic states. In these latter countries, the regimes are as authoritarian as Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus, but the character of the political process is made more complex by the conflict of secular authoritarianism with Islam. This makes Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan subject to a different analysis, outside the scope of this article. 


In the Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus of the early 1990s, there was a very strong demand for an effective economic system that was able to rescue people from the kind of shortages that had blighted the Soviet Union. That very system appeared just about everywhere in the post-Soviet world; and despite its many shortcomings, the model has been accepted by the population. No one has attempted to bring back the Soviet economic system. Quite the contrary: even Lukashenka has progressively tried to increase the market component of the Belarusian economy.  


On the other hand, there was no correspondingly strong demand for democracy at the time (except, perhaps, in the Baltic states). The slow retreat to authoritarianism began here. And why Belarus turned out to be the leader in this retreat becomes clear when you stop comparing this small country with Russia and Ukraine, and instead compare it with an average Russian region. Even in Yeltsin’s time, there were some regions that had become mini-authoritarian systems; where the regional governor would not allow any opposition or freedom of speech. This was determined in large part by the absence of the thin layer of European-oriented intelligentsia that exists in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kyiv. The provincial Soviet city of Minsk is meanwhile much more similar to other provincial Russian cities than it is to large such cultural centers. Hence Lukashenko had, even in the mid-1990s, managed to consolidate power in his hands in the same way that many Russian governors had. 

Dmitri Travin is research director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Center of Modernization Studies. This article originally appeared on

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