Ukraine: Containing the Con

For five years Viktor Yanukovych claimed to be a democratic, moderate, and unifier—everything that the Orange elites presumably were not. In the two months that he has occupied the president’s seat, Yanukovych has shown that he is an authoritarian, radical, and disunifier—everything that the Orange revolutionaries had accused him of being in 2004.

The con, as it turned out, was a conman and his supposed makeover by U.S. political consultant Paul Manafort was nothing but an elaborate con.

Having succeeded in “coordinating” government within two months—the term the Nazis used for Hitler’s identical feat in 1933 was Gleichschaltung —Yanukovych and his band of dons are on a roll. Having openly embraced dictatorship, they cannot retreat. They must now consolidate their power, eliminate all opposition, and transform Ukraine into the Donbas, both because their legitimacy depends on it and because anything less than complete success for a dictator spells defeat.

Ukrainians should therefore expect the assault on democracy and Ukrainian identity to continue. Indeed, because Ukrainian language, culture, and identity have become so closely bound with democracy and the West, and because the Russian language, culture, and identity have—unfortunately—become so closely bound with authoritarianism and the Soviet past, Yanukovych must attack both democracy and Ukrainian identity with equal vigor. Yanukovych’s Führerist ambitions are merely the flip side of Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk’s anti-Ukrainian hysteria.

If undeterred, the continued assault on democracy and Ukrainian identity is likely to take the following forms:

  • The progress transformation of the Rada into a rubber-stamp institution along the lines of the Russian Duma.
  • The dispersal of demonstrations by means of force and, if need be, violence.
  • The harassment, persecution, and possible “disappearance” of opposition leaders in general and of outspoken national-democratic and nationalist leaders in particular. Particular targets: Yulia Tymoshenko, Oleh Tyahnybok, Anatoliy Hrytsenko.
  • The curtailment of university autonomy. Particular targets: The Kyiv Mohyla Academy, the Ostroh Academy, and the Ukrainian Catholic University.
  • The progressive reintroduction of censorship in and the gradual imposition of financial, bureaucratic, and legal constraints on the independent media. Particular targets: Ukrains’kyy tyzhden’, Dzerkalo tyzhnya, Hazeta po ukrains’ky, Ukrains’ka pravda, Kyiv Post, Channel 5.
  • The harassment, persecution, and possible “disappearance” of outspoken journalists, scholars, and writers. Particular targets: Mykola Riabchuk, Oksana Zabuzhko, Yuriy Makarov, Yaroslav Hrytsak, Yuriy Andrukhovych, Dmytro Pavlychko.

Fortunately, Ukraine is not, as the perceptive President Leonid Kuchma once wrote, Russia. Ukraine still has a vigorous civil society and political opposition. It also has a vibrant diaspora that may be expected to monitor Yanukovych’s dictatorial plans.

Who will win—the Yanukovych authoritarians or the national democrats?

Yanukovych must destroy the opposition in order to win. A dictator cannot be a dictator as long as there is an opposition. The opposition must only contain Yanukovych in order to win. It has only to demonstrate that he can be stopped.

Yanukovych faces by far the more daunting task, if only because his coercive resources are fewer than his sultanistic ambitions require and because civil society and the opposition are too strong and too large to be cowed, killed, or deported as in the good ol’ days of Comrade Stalin. Besides, mass arrests or mass disappearances might even lead Berlin and Paris to raise an eyebrow.

In sum, Yanukovych will fail—ineluctably and inevitably—but he will cause enormous damage to Ukraine in the process of failing. The east-west split in Ukraine will be amplified, radicals will mobilize and be tempted to engage in violence, the regime will turn a blind eye to the growth of anti-Semitism within its energized pro-Russian constituency, and foreign direct investment will dry up.

For several reasons, 2012 may be the year of Yanukovych’s downfall.

First, his dictatorial ambitions will be absolutely clear by then, even to those Ukrainians who are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The Stalinists will of course be delighted by full-scale Gleichschaltung, but those Ukrainians with some sense of alternatives, human dignity, and decency—which is to say the majority—will not.

Second, his inability or unwillingness to reform the economy and improve living standards will also be equally manifest. Contrary to their populist rhetoric, dictators are primarily interested in their own and their cronies’ enrichment and generally do little more for the people than make the trains run on time.

Third, civil society, the independent media, and the political opposition will, even in the face of open repression, still be alive, if not quite well. After a few years of persecution and harassment, they will be angry, focused, and more united, while the Orange-era incompetence of opposition politicians will be a distant memory.

Fourth, parliamentary elections slated for 2012 will, as in late 2004, serve as an excellent occasion for mobilizing the people against the regime. Even fascistoid Russia continues to hold national elections, and Yanukovych will have no choice but to follow in Vladimir Putin’s footsteps.

Fifth, fissures will open in Yanukovych’s regime, as former supporters concerned with political survival become defectors and join the opposition camp. Authoritarian regimes are always and everywhere brittle; they are especially susceptible to elite splits as popular opposition grows and the possibility of defeat, and punishment, grows real. Expect Sergiy Tigipko to bolt by no later than early 2012 or late 2011.

Sixth, Ukraine will be co-hosting the UEFA-2012 soccer championship and will, as a result, be subject to intense international scrutiny, tourism, and media coverage. The soccer championship will force the regime to adopt the veneer of democracy and lessen its harassment and persecution of the opposition, thereby providing regime opponents with both a window of opportunity and a cover.

These six factors could easily create a “perfect storm.” Disillusioned and angry at a time of electoral mobilization, average Ukrainians could join forces with existing and defecting elites and, with political repression relaxed due to the UEFA championship, make demands that the regime will not be able to repress or resist.

With any luck, Yanukovych will then buy a one-way ticket on the Kyiv-Vladivostok express.

Alexander J. Motyl, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. This essay first appeared in Kyiv Post.   Photo credit: AP.