In recent years, many analysts have said that under Viktor Yanukovych the Ukrainian government has borrowed from the Russian model, with its greater emphasis on centralization as a means to improve administrative capacity. But the recent election in Ukraine has shown that the two countries’ political systems are still very different.
Ukrainian politics enjoys a high degree of pluralism. Its citizens are offered a diverse political menu like in Europe. Thus, the Verkhovnaya Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, will now have a nationalist party, the Freedom Party, just like most European parliaments. The left-wing Communist Party has picked up seats. The non-ideological party led by famous boxer Vitali Klitschko will also be represented.
And that is even before mentioning either the Party of Regions or the united opposition created around Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchina. These two parties are in a very different order, as they form the country’s main rival forces.
It is difficult to pin down the ideological differences between them, save for the pro-Russian vs. pro-Western divide. But even this divide can be overstated – both Russia and the West have long understood that Ukrainian politicians are primarily guided by their own mutable interests.
All political parties get their funding from one and the same source: major clans of oligarchs who prefer to hedge their bets spreading their contributions as widely as possible. This results in a high degree of political liquidity. Politics in Ukraine is made out of a viscous alloy of endless deals and revisions, which ensures the relative stability of the overall structure.
That said, in recent years, analysts observe, the current government has “crossed the Rubicon,” – something quite unprecedented, even in more troubled times.
Yanukovych’s most fervent opponents, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko, have received lengthy prison sentences. However, these harsh actions are also open to a different interpretation. Yanukovych has removed the most assertive and independent politicians, people who, with their fiery temperament and combativeness, threatened the system of seemingly endless bargaining.
Simply put, it would be easier for everyone else, including their supporters, if they followed the rules of the game rather than these charismatic leaders.
The opinion that Ukraine is an artificial entity doomed to break up sooner or later has always been popular in Russia. As for the country’s borders, there is indeed a case to be made that the country’s current configuration owes a great deal to land acquired in Soviet times. However, the extent of the nation’s fragility is an unknown.
Paradoxically, though culturally it is an extremely diverse nation, linguistically and socially, Ukraine constitutes a solid, integral whole. The country’s inability to centralize along the Russian model has forced Kiev to settle for its often stagnant political system. That said, it creates political bonds among all the diverse elements of the system, and ensures their continuous interaction.
Radicalization and confrontation would have led to disintegration, but these elements cannot exist on their own. The country’s poor but ideologically infused west cannot survive on its own economically, while the economically strong east lacks a political identity. Together, they represent a peculiar entity that only works as a package deal. The vast majority is aware of the value of this sovereignty, whatever their political views.
The recent election struck a balance among the country’s interests, putting an end to a period that tested Ukraine’s strength as a cohesive state. Now that its durability has been proved, the question is: where next?
To date, Ukrainian politics was reduced to endless maneuvering between Russia and Europe. Kiev may plan to continue this, but the external conditions have changed. Everyone is sick and tired of this ceaseless, parochial intrigue.
Inside the country, this marching in place ensures the system’s stability, but it is tiresome and, on occasion, irritating for foreign actors. Moreover, everyone has their own problems to deal with. Europe is mired in crisis; the United States is pivoting to Asia; and even Russia has lost its former enthusiasm and is now waiting for Ukraine to act instead of showering it with proposals, as it did two years ago.
Ukraine’s economic position has long left much to be desired, but the prospects of receiving much needed economic assistance are vague. It cannot count on Western assistance. First, Tymoshenko’s imprisonment has strained relations with the West. Second, Europe simply does not have the money. In fact, the IMF is overloaded with requests for aid from the Eurozone.
Russia has set out its aid terms: accession to the Customs Union. But any binding commitment has always meant serious political complications for Kiev. The new parliament will not make things easier. The nationalists won’t miss the chance to stage a major show on the pretext of threats to Ukraine’s independence.
During its 20-plus years of independence, Ukraine has proved both its validity and its viability. It remains to be seen what Ukraine will do next, and whether an independent Ukraine will be able to harness its own sources and engines of development.