A Pact with the Devil: Why Ukraine’s Democratic Uprisings Have Been Followed by Revanchism

May 12, 2020
On the surface, the one-year rule of President Volodymyr Zelensky has shown a continuation of Ukraine’s movement closer to the EU and NATO. Under the surface, however, it shows symptoms of a rollback of reforms and anti-Maidan revanchism. Let’s look at why.
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Zelensky's rule: balancing or revanchism?

When Volodymyr Zelensky won both the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, his victories were  met with contrasting reactions.

Many in Ukraine and abroad had hope that Zelensky's victories would offer a chance to l break the vicious circle of painful compromises with corrupt elites, and would boost Ukrainian reforms towards transparency, democracy, and dignity.

Many others warned that Zelensky represented a hidden form of revanchism against the values of the Euromaidan (the popular uprising in 2013-2014 against the corrupt pro-Russian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych), and a soft introduction to future russification and alienation from the West.

Zelensky's first year has shown that he was not quite either of these things. He is increasingly becoming a typical figure for Ukrainian politics: a balancer.

Zelensky is increasingly becoming a typical figure for Ukrainian politics: a balancer.

He's balancing between the West and Russia, between Maidan and anti-Maidan, between Ukrainization and Russification, between Kolomoyskyi and the IMF. His campaign embraced everything possible, so he is stuck in this all-embracing position forever. Some believe that he demonstrates inclusiveness, while others see him as indifferent.

The problem, however, is how far this balancing has gone: anti-Maidan forces are becoming stronger, and the reformist drive is dying out.

Anti-Maidan forces are becoming stronger, and the reformist drive is dying out.

Some key symptoms:

  • The reformist government of Oleksiy Honcharuk was fired on March 4^th^ after only half a year in power. The government was criticized for its inexperience, but its dismissal was the mostly result of an aggressive information campaign by anti-Western actors.
  • Ruslan Riaboshapka, a reformist prosecutor general and key Zelensky ally throughout his rise to power, was fired from his post on March 5^th^. Riaboshapka and his team were implementing the most large-scale reform of Ukrainian prosecution service in the country's history to get rid of corrupt prosecutors. The system fired back.
  • Iryna Venediktova, a lawyer who had earlier failed the exams for the position of Supreme Court judge, was appointed as Riaboshapka's successor as prosecutor general. Some of her public statements have raised concerns: she once called for the cancellation of a law providing amnesty to participants of the Maidan uprising of 2013-2014. The prosecutor general office under Venediktova freed itself from accountability to civic society and international actors, which will increase its corruption autarchy and non-transparency.
  • The State Bureau of  Investigation (DBR), a new law-enforcement body, has been turned against its reason for creation. Its acting head, Oleksandr Babikov, was an attorney of Yanukovych. The DBR's latest endeavor seeks to prove that the killings on the Maidan began as a result of a fire started on February 18, 2014 at the office of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, thus putting the blame on Maidan protesters -- despite years of investigations telling a completely different story.
  • Tetyana Chornovol, a Maidan activist  and member of parliament in the post-Maidan years (2014-2019) who lost her husband at the front in Donbas, was put on house arrest after being accused of starting the February 2014  fire at the Party of Regions office.
  • Max Nefiodov, the architect of ProZorro (one of the most successful Ukrainian reforms which has made public procurement more transparent and less corrupt) was fired from his post as the head of the customs office on April 24.
  • The medical reforms started under President Petro Poroshenko, designed by then-acting health minister Uliana Suprun to remove corrupt schemes in Ukrainian healthcare and give doctors decent official (as opposed to under-the-table) pay, faces the threat of steep rollbacks.
  • These actions are being supported by a huge anti-Western information campaign, which we are regularly monitoring here.

The question is thus whether Zelensky's "balancing" is actually masking a regression from Ukraine's clear vector towards democratization and EU integration as begun by the Revolution of Dignity.

But it is important to note that this balancing also has much deeper roots.

The question is thus whether Zelensky's "balancing" is actually masking a regression from Ukraine's clear vector towards democratization and EU integration as begun by the Revolution of Dignity.

Deeper roots

Zelensky's balancing is not new, but rather part of a pattern in Ukraine's post-independence history.

Unlike in Russian political culture, which centers around a "Tsar", a "Lenin," or a "Putin", Ukrainian political culture has been polycentric from its beginnings

Unlike in Russian political culture, which centers around a "Tsar", a "Lenin," or a "Putin", Ukrainian political culture has been polycentric from its beginnings in medieval Kyivan Rus' to the modern Cossack proto-republic of Bohdan Khmelnitsky. As no internal force could consolidate monolithic power, Ukrainians and their predecessors have been destined to either find peace with painful compromises, to destroy each other in a mutual conflict, or to bow before foreign dominance.

This balancing, however, has often been morally ambiguous. In the early post-independence years, balancing was between the pro-democratic and patriotic minority on the one hand, and the pro-communist (or post-communist) majority on the other. The result of this balancing was a Ukraine with its feet in both ends of the pool. Ukraine did become independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the post-communist "elites" enjoyed its part of the deal: it was the major beneficiary of "privatization" of the economy, which in general meant that many huge assets earlier owned by state, were now owned by post-communist "elites" who had their origins in the communist party "nomenclatura".

Ukrainian writer Mykola Riabchuk called this painful compromise a "A Ukrainian Faustian Dilemma". Goethe's Faust is used in this metaphor to mark Ukrainian liberal and patriotic intelligentsia of late 1980s-early 1990s. It decided (or was forced by the circumstances) to sign a pact with the "devil" -- former communist "elites", turned into new Ukrainian "bourgeoisie" -- in order to survive and protect Ukrainian independence. The "devil", tied through financial interests to the destiny of the new Ukrainian nation, was supposed to be its protector -- but in exchange it required "Faust's soul", i.e. Ukrainian genuine political and social identity.

This explains, according to Riabchuk, why post-independence Ukraine continued to be post-Soviet, corrupt, and dominated by former communist or KGB elites, under a façade of an independent Ukrainian state. This also explained why Ukraine emulated so many traits of post-Soviet Russia.

Democratic Ukraine rebelled several times against this "state capture" by the post-communist "devil". In the winter of 2004-2005, during the Orange Revolution, the country rebelled against falsification of its election by then-Prime Minister Yanukovych, who was running for President. In the winter of 2013-2014, during the Euromaidan, or Revolution of Dignity, the country rebelled against the same Yanukovych, president since 2010, and his decision to make a policy U-turn from Europe back towards Russia.

Both these revolutions were too fragile to survive. Supported by ordinary people, volunteers, and mid-sized businesses rather than by big money, they were not able to make their ideals win out in the end.

Victor Yushchenko, the leader of the Orange revolution (2004-2005), later struck a deal with his ex-competitor Yanukovych to survive against his former ally Yulia Tymoshenko. This brought Yanukovych to the presidency in 2010.

The Euromaidan of 2013-2014 was followed by the pro-European but oligarchic rule of Petro Poroshenko. On the one hand, Poroshenko's tenure marked an unambiguous move towards democracy and a western orientation in  foreign policy; but on the other hand, reforms inside the country were often half-hearted, and Poroshenko still had to contend with the informal agreements with huge number of "ancien regime" rulers and their clans, especially in the regions.

Slow evolution or vicious circle?

The signs clearly show that the current iteration of Ukrainian "balancing" is moving more and more towards revanchism, with the Faustian "devil" striking back.

Is Zelensky smart or strong enough to stop it? This remains a big question.

Ukraine's numerous attempts -- from "de-communization" to pro-European reforms -- to cut ties with the darker parts of its Soviet past been neither total successes nor total failures. But they were parts of a bigger story of progress towards a more decent future. Ukraine's revolutions were necessary steps in the country's complex evolution. They were -- and are - facing huge resistance from within, because Ukrainian society  contains actors who stand to lose significantly from these reforms. And they might win.

Ukraine's revolutions were necessary steps in the country's complex evolution.

The key thing is to continue moving forward, even if the path is not linear, and even if there are times of regression. The current rollback, which is becoming more and more apparent, has certainly endangered Ukraine's post-Maidan progress. Let's hope it will go no further.

VOLODYMYR YERMOLENKO
chief editor at UkraineWorld.org, director for analytics at Internews Ukraine

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