A Special Case?

15 june 2008

Arkady Moshes is Program Director of the EU Eastern Neighborhood and Russia Research Program at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Resume: Ukraine may simply remain an exceptional case in the territory of the former Soviet Union – an interim transitional type, a country treading after its Central European neighbors, but never catching up with them as regards the development of democratic institutions or the degree of economic modernization. And yet it may implement the declared “European choice” in one form or another.

Ukraine, in the wake of its Orange Revolution, has earned the image of a leading post-Soviet country regarding the pace of liberal reform. However, this perception of the country is to a large extent a kind of payment in advance rather than a reflection of actual results. Kyiv would not likely be in this leading position if one looks at the current integral index that draws together the indicators of political democratization and economic reform, both of which are of crucial significance when measuring the rate of the so-called ‘democratic transition.’ Moreover, Ukraine is lagging behind some of its regional neighbors in several aspects of the transformation (see Table 1). Yet it is rightfully and unambiguously in the lead in terms of expectations.

On the one hand, Ukraine still says that it is committed to change along the Central European model, a factor making it radically different from other former Soviet republics where tendencies toward political and economic centralization have prevailed. Ukrainian politics is based on plurality; elections have turned into an instrument for settling political differences and presidential power is greatly restricted by the Constitution and parliament.

Unlike in Moscow, the political leaders in Kyiv have come to a consensus on joining the World Trade Organization and launching talks with the European Union on more extensive free trade. This proves that Ukraine has accepted a universal method of engaging in international economic relations and feels confident of its own ability. Finally, Ukraine has made a choice in favor of full integration into European and North-Atlantic organizations instead of selective cooperation with them.

On the other hand, if one compares Ukraine to other post-Soviet countries with similar types of domestic and foreign policy – Moldova and Georgia – it naturally has a greater potential for implementing its plans. It has a relatively large and developed economy, and since its declaration of independence Ukraine has managed to avoid ethnic tensions and has kept a balance of interests between regions and political groups.

How did Ukraine manage to assume the role of the engine of the democratic – and not just market/capitalistic – transformation in the territory of the former Soviet Union? It seems there were no prerequisites for this at the start. The country has a large percentage of ethnic Russians (22 percent in 1989 and about 18 percent in 2001) and a still bigger share of the population are Russian speakers, which implies Russia’s strong political and cultural influence. Like other CIS countries, Ukraine’s Soviet-era party and economic elite remained in power by and large after independence. The initial reforms were more than just painful – they were so ineffective that Ukraine received the status of a market economy later than Russia did.

A system based on clans and oligarchies gradually took shape in the country. The authorities mastered manipulative technologies to reproduce themselves – an illustrative example of this is the 1999 election, in which President Leonid Kuchma was “placed” to run against a Communist contender in the runoff, which automatically guaranteed him victory. By 2000, Ukraine had become a country with a governable democracy and virtual politics where the ruling elite could only emulate reforms. The main thing is that Ukraine did not have very many possibilities for becoming a full-fledged member of the EU at that time (and does not have any now either), while this very promise served as the main stimulus for and a trigger of transformation processes in Central European and Baltic countries.

There must be an answer – albeit an ambiguous and multifold one – to this question of “how.” Some of its elements are axiomatic and lie at the surface, while others are theoretical and obviously disputable. It seems, though, one can single out three main components.

The first one is the logic of independence. There has been a drift away from Russia after it became impossible to build a structure of alternative leadership within the CIS. This has led to an ever-increasing need to accept Western norms and rules.

Second, there is Ukraine’s polycentrism. If constructs of this kind do not fall apart at once, they become flexible and pluralistic. It is against this background that the Western Ukrainian region of Halychyna plays a very special role and factors like this are not found in any other country.

Third, there was a chain of circumstances. This means that Kyiv’s choices could not have been predicted in 1992, but they can be explained in 2008.


The basic impulse that determined the course of Ukraine’s development was set in many ways by the 1991 referendum, where nine-tenths of the population voted in favor of a divorce from the Soviet Union. For Ukraine, genuine independence could only mean independence from Russia and that is why Russia almost immediately found itself in the position of the main – if not the only – challenger to Ukrainian statehood. Moscow’s immediate territorial claims to the Crimea aggravated the situation.

The majority of the then-ruling Ukrainian elite viewed independence as an instrumental and not as an all-sufficient goal. Those people treasured sovereignty because of the economic opportunities and power inherent in it, and not because it meant a victory over a foreign or even “occupational” force, as the Baltic countries saw it. Yet this factor does not matter much since the defense of power and property is no less a motivating factor than one’s self-identity or ethnic/religious incentives.

Moscow and Kyiv were embedded in arguments over the splitting of the Black Sea Fleet and the deployment of the Russian part of the fleet in Sevastopol, over supplies and payment for natural resources and over humanitarian problems. The two countries have still not resolved these issues.

The perception of Russia as a challenger and of Ukraine’s geo-strategic situation as being highly vulnerable could not but have prompted a search for interaction with Western institutions as a counterweight to Russia’s influence. That is why Ukraine signed an agreement on partnership and cooperation with the European Union already in 1994; it became the first CIS member-nation to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1995; and it signed a Special Partnership Charter with the alliance in 1997. In general, Kyiv was in favor of NATO’s eastward expansion, and this added to the Ukrainian-Russian divisions. The logic of building partnership relations with the North-Atlantic Alliance paved the way to signing a number of documents with the goal of Ukraine joining NATO. They were signed at the time when Leonid Kuchma was president and Victor Yanukovich was a first-term prime minister. Ukraine officially requested a Membership Action Plan for itself in 2008. All of this took place while the very idea of such membership was supported by a very small portion of Ukrainians.

It is worth noting that the West has never initiated a policy of drawing Ukraine into NATO. It is true that in the 1990s, the U.S. and NATO espoused Zbigniew Brzezinski’s idea that Russia would never be an empire again without Ukraine and they gave direct or tentative support to Kyiv. But they would rather consider making Ukraine a buffer zone than including it in the Western security zone as such. This purely geopolitical approach was counterbalanced by a perception of Russia as the flagship of transition in the region and the realization – to a certain extent – that Moscow, with its traditions in state-building and resources, could take on the responsibility of maintaining stability and preventing a collapse of post-Soviet countries. All the more so that Ukraine, which was reluctant to carry out real reforms and aroused suspicions that it was supplying weapons to regimes unfriendly to the U.S. and the EU, caused serious disenchantment in the Western ruling milieu.

The situation changed in 2003 and 2004, however. After a number of East European countries joined the EU and its borders reached Ukraine, Brussels was forced to consider ways of stabilizing its new frontier. Simultaneously, Russia made an unambiguous claim to revise the status quo and launched a tougher and more conflict-oriented policy toward Ukraine. As a result, the West’s policy toward Ukraine became complicated and multifaceted and offered more flexible responses to the calls coming from Kyiv. Still, the EU’s reaction did not go beyond the format of the so-called European ‘neighborhood policy.’ Its very name speaks of its anti-integration essence, and yet it would not be correct to ignore the potential for a rapprochement embedded in it.

Interaction with the EU and the U.S. was not the only resource that Ukraine tried to make instrumental in its search to counteract Moscow’s influence. It conscientiously sought the position of leader in the territory of the former Soviet Union. In 1992-1994, Ukraine procrastinated with a renunciation of nuclear weapons, although its inability to maintain the status of a nuclear power and the fact that this scenario was unacceptable for the West was obvious. The same reason was behind its willingness to take the reins of power in GUAM – an association of countries having serious problems with Russia.

But as betting on the alternative leadership in the CIS became more and more of an illusion and the plans for regional integration in Central Europe turned out to be unworkable after Ukraine’s western neighbors joined the EU and NATO, Ukraine had no other options than the limited cooperation offered by the West.

At the same time, NATO’s own experience shows that a rapprochement stimulated by geopolitical factors and taken per se does not imply a democratic change. EU membership is a different story in this sense. It looks like Ukrainian society and the political class shifted their accent to the “European choice” at the beginning of this decade. This shift envisions acceptance of reforms along European standards.

Polls taken over many years by Ukraine’s Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Research show that since 2002 more Ukrainians are in favor of the country joining the EU. In the fall of 2002, when the EU was preparing its final decision on incorporating Ukraine’s neighbors, the positive attitude toward a United Europe hit 65 percent.

It is also true, however, that Ukrainians have been much more critical of the European Union in the past few years. In the first place due to the EU’s reluctance to respond to Kyiv’s aspirations to become integrated in Europe. Still, the majority of respondents younger than 59 years old – and especially those younger than 39 years – answer with assuredness that they personally, and the country as a whole, stand to gain from EU membership. The huge changes in neighboring countries and the millions of Ukrainians who have left the country to find jobs in the West have furnished Ukrainians with the invaluable experience of assessing the advantages of the European model. The process did take some time, but most Ukrainians acknowledge the benefits of integration today, and the national debate on this problem has evolved toward a realization that reforms should be viewed as an internal necessity and not as a ticket for admission to Europe.

It is still an open question whether Moscow could prevent or at least slow down the drift of its southern neighbor. Theoretically such a possibility existed – for instance, as part of the concept “To Europe with Russia!” which Kyiv put forth at the beginning of this decade – but in reality this option was scarcely possible. Moscow failed to accept the principle of equality and its policies boiled down to bribery and forceful pressure. Nor did it find ways to attract partners for cooperation without sinking into full-scale subsidizing, which the partners used quite skillfully – and which Belarus is still doing to this day.

A transition to genuine interstate relations between Russia and Ukraine began only after the Orange Revolution in Kyiv. Moscow had to admit that the opportunities for coexistence with Ukraine in a single economic and political space and with Moscow retaining its role of the leader have been exhausted, while Kyiv had to recognize that reforms require a renunciation of privileges in the field of energy resources.


The main trait of Ukraine’s internal structure is polycentrism. Not a single center of power found in that country is capable of monopolizing all the power and resources or even holding the top position for a long time. Political plurality matches this type of structure best of all. This structure has not been stable, as centers of power have alternately appeared and disappeared, or at times they become stronger or weaker.

The competition between the centers of power is more pronounced in the regional factor. Russia has traditionally spoken of a contention between the so-called Left-Bank Ukraine and Right-Bank Ukraine – a reference to the banks of the Dnieper River. Yet the current breakdown of electoral preferences actually reflects a division between the “historical” and “newly populated” (i.e., populated after the 18th century) parts of the country. Although the full picture is far more complicated, this does not change its essence.

Regional leaders are not seeking a breach of the state – they put the emphasis on coming to power in the center and proliferating their influence through the capital city and the central agencies of power. To achieve this, even the strongest ones need allies and the skills to make arrangements with others. Attempts to preside over all others rather than being the first among equals soon lead to a political defeat – as the representatives of the largest – Donetsk-based – regional group could perfectly see in 2004 and 2007.

In addition, conflicts between regions and regional elites have an element that plays a unique role in settling the question of the European choice – the Halychyna [Eastern Galicia – Ed.] factor or, in a broader sense, all of Western Ukraine as a political phenomenon.

Halychyna is smaller and weaker than Eastern Ukraine, but it has an advantage – a homogeneous vision of the world and a cohesive self-identity. For Western Ukrainians, the country’s independence is a value in its own right and the return to Europe is as natural as for the Poles, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, since the western parts of what is now Ukraine were incorporated in Soviet/Russian imperial territory only in 1939-1945. By contrast, Eastern Ukrainian leaders view independence as an instrumental thing. They are unable to create a new ideology for the new state or to explain to their Russian-speaking voters their own choice for existence outside of the Russian state, and this compels them to rely on the political leaders from the western regions in that sphere. While the “Halychyans” can configure their nation state with the European choice, Eastern leaders are unable to combine their country’s independence and its integration with Russia (a logical end to that option would be subordination, if not territorial incorporation) and hence they have to call on their proponents to exercise an amorphous “cooperation” and ”rapprochement” with Moscow.

There is ample observation to illustrate the homogeneity and consistency of Western Ukrainian politicians. Some Eastern Ukrainian leaders have joined the country’s Western power-wielding quarters on quite a number of occasions after 2004. The last person in that resounding sequence was Raisa Bogatyryova, a key figure in the Regions party, who agreed to take the post of Secretary of the National Security Council in President Victor Yushchenko’s administration. There are practically no instances of a reverse West-to-East movement. One can hardly imagine, for example, that Borys Tarasyuk, leader of the People’s Movement of Ukraine, or Rukh, would accept the post of Security Council Secretary in the administration of a President Victor Yanukovich.

Western Ukraine is thus winning the ideological competition step by step. Suffice it to recall presidential elections where the candidates would be associated either with the “Western” or “Eastern” set of values.

The nationalist daydreamer and Rukh leader Vyacheslav Chornovil received only 23 percent of the votes in December 1991 in a contest with Soviet-era party bureaucrat Leonid Kravchuk who received 62 percent. The latter got only 45 percent of the votes in a runoff election in 1994 as he tried to lean on slogans close to the hearts of Western Ukrainian voters. He lost to Leonid Kuchma – a representative of the Eastern regions who promised among other things to make Russian an official language – and got 52 percent of votes. Since Kuchma reneged on his electoral promises, he could not run as a representative of Eastern Ukraine in the 1999 election and the campaign took place under the slogan of “preventing a Communist relapse.” In the repeat runoff in 2004, Victor Yushchenko, who was viewed as an advocate of the nationalist democratic ideology, got 52 percent against the 44 percent taken by Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich, a native of Donetsk [the cradle of the Eastern political elite – Ed.] whom Leonid Kuchma had chosen as his successor.

Since the divisions among regions are getting narrower, it cannot be ruled out that this election was the last one in which the issues of language, culture and foreign policy will play a significant role. One could predict that the 2009 election will focus on social and economic issues and have stricter requirements for the personalities of the candidates.

The nature of Ukraine’s oligarchic system was directly linked to the mutual positioning of different geographic and administrative regions – and not so much along the West-East line. Business empires not only embedded themselves in the country’s polycentric construction, they magnified this polycentricity. Financial and industrial groups based in Donetsk, Mariupol, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia and Kyiv have incessantly looked for models of coexistence that would match the present-day reality. No guarantees of their mutual loyalty – and all the more so subordination – have ever existed. It is well known that some of the clans gave feeble support to the seemingly common candidate Victor Yanukovich. They feared that he would facilitate a steep rise of his own group.

On the other hand, big business, which from time to time overtly sponges on the government, has never been strong enough to subjugate it. The clans did recognize Leonid Kuchma’s role as an arbiter in the fighting within their own ranks, but his personal closeness to the Dnipropetrovsk group (his son-in-law, Victor Pinchuk, is one of the richest people in Ukraine) made it difficult to draw a line of division between the presidential and business aspects of his activity. Still, the financial and industrial groups proved strong enough to survive after the Orange Revolution, although protests against oligarchies were one of its driving forces. The repartitioning of property ended with a re-privatization of the Krivorizhstal steel mill, which international steel major Mittal Steel bought from businessmen close to Kuchma.

A possible explanation for this situation is that the interests of Ukraine’s big business and reformist authorities overlap today. Unlike in the mid-1990s, Ukrainians can make huge fortunes now in areas other than the selling of Russian natural gas. Liberation from “oil and gas addiction” pushes businesses to search for new markets and international legitimization of their revenues, while a gradual slimming of Russian energy subsidies makes them think of a transition to civilized rules of conducting business and modernization programs at large. It was not accidental that Victor Pinchuk became a major lobbyist for Ukraine’s pro-European choice on the international scene.

Finally, systemic rivalry between the president and parliament also played a role in the rise of Ukrainian polycentrism. The head of state has never had an opportunity to resort to forcible policies since the very declaration of independence, however dismal the repute of various sessions of Ukraine’s parliament – the Verkhovna Rada – might have been.

Against this background, the positions of the president have been gradually weakening. The 1995 Constitutional Agreement gave the president more powers than the 1996 Constitution. Kuchma’s attempt in 2000 to beef up presidential power by introducing constitutional changes through a referendum failed. The referendum did take place, but the authorities did not find any legal mechanisms for enforcing its results, which once again exposed the weakness of the head of state. Next came constitutional amendments adopted during the Orange Revolution. They made the cabinet of ministers unaccountable to the president and turned Ukraine into a mixed parliamentary/presidential republic. A new redistribution of authorized powers may take place in the next few years, but full subordination of executive power to the office of president has been simply ruled out, and this feature objectively brings Ukraine closer to the Central European models of state governance.


The aforesaid external and internal political environment may not have been enough for choosing and maintaining Ukraine’s democratic course had it not been for an entire chain of events and circumstances, which were mostly accidental (although lovers of conspiracy theories will likely disagree with this). Let us mention a few of them.

In the first place, there was the 1994 election. What matters here is the fact that Leonid Kravchuk agreed to an early election. As a result, state power went over to the opposition – a factor that was critical for the country’s future developments. Even more important was the fact that the losers stayed in the political arena. In spite of the scale of the standoff, Kravchuk returned to national politics and eventually emerged as a leader of the pro-Kuchma forces in 2002–2004. Thus a tradition of tolerance to opposition was created, opportunities for cooperation between former adversaries emerged, and the totalitarian principle “the winner takes all” was dumped.

Pressure was exerted on former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, Yulia Tymoshenko (who was closely linked with him in the mid-1990s) and on businesses affiliated with them, but this was more the exception than the rule. Yet those two people had an opportunity to take part in the 1999 election, with Tymoshenko eventually taking the post of a deputy prime minister in Victor Yushchenko’s cabinet. Thus political differences did not become synonymous with personal animosities, and this laid the foundation for a flexible and steady political system.

It is worthwhile in this context to say a few words about Leonid Kuchma’s personality – a most ambiguous one that still awaits a biographer to explore it. During the Orange Revolution most Ukrainians passed negative judgments on his stay in power and rejected his successor. Yet it is important that several of his decisions – whether taken by instinct or upon scrutiny – were in line with the country’s general ideological and political evolution and did not contradict it.

First, Kuchma learned to speak Ukrainian and used the language in public, thus reasserting his willingness to be a president of an entire Ukraine and not just one part of it. This was a profoundly symbolic precedent that compelled Victor Yanukovich to do the same.

Second, Kuchma refused to use force to suppress political protests. He took this line during the escalation of tensions in the Crimea in 1994 and 1995. The peninsula reverted to Ukraine’s legislative realm through agreements.

Third, Kuchma had enough resolve to publish a book called Ukraine Is Not Russia that said the divergence between the two countries is unavoidable. He did it in spite of his frequently stated eagerness to bridge positions with Moscow and to pursue a multifaceted foreign policy.

Fourth, Kuchma did much to streamline Ukraine’s relations with the West. In 2002, when his reputation in the West had already collapsed, he went as far as to suffer personal humiliation as he took part in a conference of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in Prague to confirm the sincerity of his country’s Euro-Atlantic choice. The participating heads of state and government were then purposefully seated according to the French alphabet, not the English one, so that the U.S. president and the British prime minister would sit at a specific distance from the Ukrainian president.

Last but not least, Kuchma dispelled fears when he resigned as required by law.

The next critical episode after the 1994 election came in 2001 when Major Mykola Melnychenko, a former presidential bodyguard, published his audio recordings. Although the outburst of oppositionist activity it produced subsided quickly enough, the ‘cassette scandal’ changed the context of Ukrainian politics. People started looking at the Kuchma regime as not simply immoral, but as criminal. Public opinion interpreted those recordings as proof of Kuchma’s involvement in the assassination of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze – even though the details of the crime, which had a serious impact on Ukraine’s development, are still not clear to this date.

The scandal had specific political repercussions. As rightfully noticed by Ukrainian political scientist Mykhailo Pohrebinsky, then liberal Prime Minister Victor Yushchenko, the West’s enfant cheri, lost his chance of becoming Kuchma’s successor. Pohrebinsky says that the campaign demanding Kuchma’s resignation made sense only for as long as the power could go over to the prime minister, who was popular with the opposition. As Kuchma rescued himself, he had to fire Yushchenko.

The dismissal of Yushchenko, a person who was completely loyal to the president, provided the opposition with a leader and a banner at the same time. It also forced Kuchma to lean more on the oligarchs, shift the balance of forces toward the Donetsk clan, and seek ways of rapprochement with Moscow. But most Ukrainians and their political leaders did not support either of these steps.

The West, on its part, paid more attention to developments in Ukraine in general and to the 2002 parliamentary election in particular. Since Kuchma did not really want a fight with the West – it would produce greater dependence on Russia eventually – he did not use his administrative resources in that election very actively. As a result, the election propelled to parliament the radically anti-Communist Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (7.3 percent of the votes on the party ticket). Tymoshenko thus obtained immunity and access to the public rostrum. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party received 23.6 percent – even more than the Communists did, and became the tentative winner in the election. This circumstance made regional bureaucracies disorganized and they lost confidence in the ruling party’s ability to keep the situation under control. The political process was no longer “successfully governable.”

The road to the Orange Revolution was open now. Its outcome was logical and the causes of the events in the fall of 2004 have been described in great detail. However, given the polarization of electoral preferences and the approximate parity of forces at the start of the campaign, Yanukovich’s victory was not altogether impossible. Two factors eventually seem to have tipped the scales in Yushchenko’s favor:

The attempt to poison him in September 2004 that evidently gave him the people’s sympathy and made behind-the-scenes arrangements impossible for him personally;

Russia’s interference in the election campaign on Yanukovich’s behalf.

The latter factor caused an unparalleled protest, above all in Kyiv, where a new generation of Russian-speaking proponents of Ukrainian statehood had matured by that time.


Ukraine’s democratic transition may have been reversible before the Orange Revolution, but that is hardly possible now considering the events in the years after it consolidated the nation’s choice.

First, Ukraine will continue its step-by-step integration into Europe, both economically and politically. Ukraine’s “European choice” will remain the core of the country’s foreign policy. A breakthrough may be possible by the introduction of broader free trade between Ukraine and the EU – although this will not take place earlier than 2012 or 2014 – and a major liberalization of travel restrictions may come in its wake. Ukraine’s self-adjustment in the European system of energy security will continue. Ukraine will co-host the European Football Championship in 2012 along with Poland and this will give a boost to Ukraine’s infrastructure, raise the level of its compatibility with Europe and, most importantly, will help the country foster the image that it is an inalienable part of Europe.

All of that will not furnish Kyiv with sufficient grounds for making guaranteed claims to a full-fledged integration in the EU and relevant influence inside it, yet it could open up the prospects for a Norwegian style of integration, suggesting incorporation in the European economic space combined with NATO membership. It looks like Ukraine would be quite happy with this.

Second, the country will not discard political plurality and the democratic electoral system. After three successive opposition victories in the elections of 2004, 2006 and 2007 the situation apparently pleases all political forces, as it leaves them a chance to regain power.

Third, external conditions, including a growth in prices for energy resources, will continue to dictate the need for economic reforms.

Developments in Ukraine pose a serious challenge for Russia, since the historical paths of the two countries are diverting. While previously the case in hand was confusion and the sorting of economic issues between political leaders, today one can speak of a growing misunderstanding between the two societies which still speak one language and have similar customs, but have different values and view their future differently.

Currently, this challenge is confined to sporadic outbursts – compensation for devalued Soviet-era bank deposits, paying child benefits that exceed those paid in Russia by several hundred percent, and an upcoming military reform that will abolish mandatory military service – that are easy to cushion off. But if the reforms facilitate Ukraine’s transition to European social policies in general and, correspondingly, improve people’s lives, the challenge will take on a systemic character. As people in both countries continue to keep close contacts, contrasting the two “verticals of state power” and “electoral democracies” will be inescapable. This factor may appear more crucial than the now hypothetical shifting of the borders of the Euro-Atlantic zone toward Ukraine’s eastern frontiers.

It does not pay to make far-reaching forecasts though. The rate of Ukraine’s further transformation may be too slow and it is too early to judge its overall success. It is unclear where the limit of the Ukrainian economy’s adaptation to new prices for gas lies. Polycentrism may degenerate into endless blocking among political forces and a desire to untangle all the knots through elections may breed populism. A liberal political system does not guarantee efficient governance, while systemic corruption can reduce the reformers’ efforts to naught. Also, it is equally unclear now if the EU can offer Kyiv a policy that will correspond to the progress of reforms.

In other words, the intrigue is still there. Ukraine may simply remain an exceptional case in the territory of the former Soviet Union – an interim transitional type, a country treading after its Central European neighbors, but never catching up with them as regards the development of democratic institutions or the degree of economic modernization. And yet it may implement the declared “European choice” in one form or another.

Last updated 15 june 2008, 13:08

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