The Revolution That Failed

The art of democracy. Ukraine, 2017.

“Life in Ukraine is too heavy,” a Ukrainian friend once wrote me via Whatsapp. “There are a lot of problems. The last revolution did not change anything. People were given false hope. People were deceived.”

This was not a political person, far from it. But politics are hard to avoid when you are young and Ukrainian, and she felt the need to explain some things to me.

“Most people here are too unhappy,” she wrote. “Some of them really do not have enough money even for food. People are forced to save on everything, even on their own health. Here only politicians and people who have a lot of money are happy. Although, this (politicians and wealthy people) is the same thing. We have a lot of problems and they are just everywhere. in education, in medicine, and so on. After the revolution of 2014, the economy suffered greatly and ordinary people have been living an economic crisis for three years already. but they continue to feed us with lies. I believe that it is necessary to completely change the power. Because this government drowned in corruption. People are not bad, the country is not bad, but what they did to this country makes me come in shock.”

As many educated people her age, the Ukrainian was toying with the idea of immigration.

Like all post-Soviet countries, Ukraine experienced a traumatic economic collapse when the protective barriers of the communist state withered away and it became integrated into the unforgiving structures of global capitalism. For Ukrainians, the 1990s were even more devastating than for the average Russian. As the economy disintegrated, and a new political order struggled to manage the crisis, the very fabric of society was tested. For ten years in a row, Ukraine’s GDP kept falling, only stabilising in 2001 at below 50% of the GDP of its last Soviet year.

But unlike the Eastern European countries which found refuge in the embrace of the European Union, and unlike its big brother Russia, which was stabilized by Putin’s autocracy and its oil-wealth alike, for Ukraine, even 27 years after its independence, both political stability and development remain elusive.

It shouldn’t be that way. In theory, Ukraine possesses everything a successful country needs: uniquely rich farmlands, a well-educated population, a legacy of highly developed industry. And yet with a 2016 per capita GDP of $7668, the Ukrainian economy has still not even recovered the level of wealth it produced during its final Soviet years. At the same time, even though its post-independence history was characterised by a fluctuation of political power unique for most post-Soviet nations, it is nonetheless far from maturing into a liberal democracy.

So what went wrong? One popular explanation culturalises the problem and sees in a persistent Soviet mentality and institutional legacy the principle obstacle to ‘normal’ capitalist development. Others rely on ‘corruption’ and economic crime as blanket and strangely abstract explanations. From a liberal perspective, it makes sense to contrast ‘normal’ capitalism based on free markets and voluntary exchange to its criminal perversions – corruption. But this dichotomy misses the degree to which the history of capitalist development quite ‘normally’ was always characterised by both private appropriation of state power and violent acts of accumulation through dispossession. Spoken cynically, the question is not why Ukraine has not conformed to a ‘normal’ path of capitalist development because it has. The question must be why it hasn’t been successful at it.

To analyse and explain this persistent crisis of Ukraine’s political economy is the goal of Yulia Yurchenko’s book Ukraine and the Empire of Capital – From Marketisation to Armed Conflict (Pluto Press, 2018). As the title indicates, she approaches the topic from the perspective of international political economy. This is fitting. After all, it was the integration of Ukraine’s economy into the triumphant empire of capital that began its downward spiral. Ever since, Ukraine found itself caught in the middle between two rival attempts at political-economic integration, and was equally dependent on East and West, on dollar and euro debts and cheap energy from Russia.

Of course, as Yurchenko shows, the overwhelming majority of protesters that toppled their government in 2013 and 2014 were not primarily motivated by forcing a commitment to Western integration. Instead, it was the escalation of state and police violence that first turned the Maidan protests into a powerful mass movement. But even though the masses may not have been interested in the rivalry between the European Union and the Russia-dominated Eurasian Union to integrate their state, this rivalry was certainly interested in them, and it is no coincidence, as Yurchenko’s analysis suggests, that it was this issue that first ignited the protests and ultimately contributed to the escalation of the political crisis into an armed conflict. A fractioned, precarious ruling bloc, “rivalries between Western, Eastern and domestic forces in the process of capital accumulation and its geopolitical expressions” – these were the sources of political instability.

Clan Wars

Yurchenko chronicles the struggles, and ultimately failures, of Ukrainian capitalist class formation since independence. The “criminal-political nexus”, which came to dominate political life, emerged from the Soviet shadow economy in the atmosphere of wild privatisations to create the foundations of a splintered ruling class set against itself, thus laying the foundations for Ukrainian’s peculiar predicament: neither a liberal democracy, as its Eastern European neighbours could aspire to be, nor a centralised authoritarianism as emerged in Russia, the Ukrainian system may be best described as an oligarchic pluralism, in which, writes Yurchenko, “the fractioned ruling bloc and their power contestations at any cost (…) will both maintain the facade of democracy and make the political order unstable to the point of insurrection and now armed conflict.”

The stranglehold which the Ukrainian oligarchs to this day hold over their political system, in other words, merely masks a weakness of the capitalist class-for-itself, which has so far been unable to create an institutional manifestation of its collective rule strong enough to discipline its various combative factions.

In lieu of a ruling class, for a long time, Ukraine had to make do with ruling clans. The complex series of rivalries and rapprochements which structured post-independence politics would fill a book by themselves. As Yurchenko describes it, the main oligarchic capital class fractions as they still exist today had formed by the late 1990s, when “the unholy alliance of the state and capital-in-the-making had merged into a regime of neoliberal kleptocracy.” The competition was cut-throat and fought out by any means – political, criminal, or otherwise. “Emerging”, she writes, from a “melée of neo-nomenklatura, red directors, Komsomol and gangs, and utilising the legal and extra-legal accumulation opportunities created by the market reforms, they all strove to gain control over the mechanisms of accumulation for their FIGs (Financial Industrial Groups).”

The larger, overarching trend, however, was the slow rise of the organized Donetsk faction based in the country’s traditional industrial heartland in the East. While the Dnipropetrovsk “neo-nomenclatura” had dominated national politics since independence, it was gradually challenged and ultimately replaced by the Donetsk clan. By the late 1990s, Yurchenko writes, “these forces (from Donetsk) emerged as class-fractions-for-themselves and formed the Party of Regions,” which by 2007 had captured a parliamentary majority, marking the beginning of their gradual usurpation of power. In 2010, they managed to elect Victor Yanukovych president.

Manufacturing the “Two Ukraines”

It is in this context that Yurchenko develops an argument about the cultural underpinnings of Ukraine’s contemporary conflict. That Ukraine is culturally, ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous, that there are, as she puts it, more than one Ukraine, is a commonplace. But the question guiding a material analysis must be, she insists, why these divisions have become politicised as they have been. The “(co)existence of the many Ukraines does not become confrontational accidentally or spontaneously”, she argues. Instead, the divisions within society have again and again been exploited and reinforced by the competing regional and oligarchic factions scrambling to defame their opponents.

Already in the 1990s, “the striking miners of Donbas were pitched against the Kyiv government by their ‘masters’ to broker a market access deal with the Dnipropetrovsk neo-nomenklatur that was the government.” Increasingly, the “Yanukovych versus Yushchenko electoral campaign” became the “main defining moment” of this development, as, by the early 2000s, “the ‘two Ukraines’ were manufactured with virtuoso mastery.”

It were these carefully stoked resentments of the Donetsk ‘labor aristocracy’ against the culturally alien West which provided the seedbed on which, later, the ‘Masters of Donbas’ would be able to sow their anti-Maidan propaganda: ”It is only the brink of despair that the working communities of the region have balanced on for decades that has made the conflict possible, the condition brought on by a strategically, if unwittingly, manufactured ‘other’ from Kyiv and Lviv; the other who has been ‘leaching’ off the hard labourers of the industrial east according to the Masters of Donbas.”

At the same time, while Yanukovych was in power, he sought to elevate the radical nationalists of the Svoboda party, thus strengthening an anti-Russian political force with a social base in the Ukrainian-speaking West. This opposition, the calculation went, would be revolting to the sensibilities of the ‘Soviet people’ of the East, and usefully scare them into supporting him – until even they increasingly didn’t, and he had to go, while the nationalism that had formed as an opposition to his rule remained.

In post-Maidan Ukraine, increasingly Russianness (and the Soviet legacy) is the object in opposition to which Ukrainian identity is defined. “What is meant by ‘Russian,’” Yurchenko slyly remarks, in this context “is not clearly defined and thus subject to vast speculations and manipulations by nationalists first and foremost.” Obviously, neither the Russian language nor the Soviet history and its legacy is not part of Ukraine. By elevating a Ukrainian identity which is supposed to exist independent from this history, by “defining Ukrainian as being ‘anything but Russian’”, the nationalist discourse cannot but operate with the image of the enemy-aggressor without, but also produces the ‘enemy within’, the un-loyal subject – the separatist.

What Yurchenko’s argument suggests is the subterranean common root of both the anti-Russian ethnic-Ukrainian nationalism which has come to dominate the public sphere since the Maidan uprising, and the effectiveness with which the anti-Maidan agitators in at least parts of the Eastern provinces were able to mobilise people for separatism: both are reflections of the failure of the integral power of Ukrainian civic nationalism. 

Nationalism, as Benedict Anderson put it, is premised on a basic “horizontal sense of comradeship” that characterises nationality even in spite of social inequalities, but which, as Yurchenko argues, had been undermined by the “systematic destruction” wreaked upon it by “political technologists” exploiting cultural fault lines for electoral propaganda many years before the first shot was ever fired in 2014.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.