The Elixir of Effective Democracy

August 2011
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Origins of Political Order in Ukraine

According to Fukuyama’s classification, in the last twenty years the Ukrainian state has fluctuated between unsuccessful oligarchy and weak absolutism. The first decade of independence was marked by gradual consolidation of executive rule in the hands of Leonid Kuchma and, at the same time, the growth of financial power of the oligarchic groups. In particular the Orange Revolution became a protest against the growth of government power and great capital, intrinsic to weak absolutism. However, the introduction of basic democratic freedoms and the limitations on the excessive influence of the president during the rule of Viktor Yushchenko were accompanied by the leveling of key liberal democratic institutions. “Kumivstvo” [nepotism or favoritism] became the path to higher government employment, the justice system remained under the control of political factions, and the principle of “one law for all” remained only a successful pre-election slogan.  The implementation of democratic procedures during parliamentary elections and the prevention of the central government from interfering in media matters did not strengthen the parliament or the mass media as institutions representing public interests and control of the government. On the contrary, they became hostages of competing oligarchic groups, which under conditions of a weak government, became the leading players in the political arena. Ukraine in 2009 resembled the weak Hungarian monarchy of the 14th century, in which the deciding influence belonged to a group of the privileged aristocracy, and the chance at democratic development was lost because of the inaction of the government.

The victory of Viktor Yanukovych as one of the representatives of the oligarchic groups in the presidential elections of 2010 returned Ukraine to the model of weak absolutism. The president renewed lost privileges, and the oligarchs obtained direct control over the organs of executive powers, both on the central and local levels. This new balance in relations between a weak state apparatus and oligarchic groups means continued retention of old poorly-effective institutions. The absence of a functional bureaucracy and Confucian traditions of the elite’s “moral obligation” makes authoritarian modernization according to the Chinese example just a phantom. At the same time, public implementation of justice in the form of the renewed Constitution of 1996, and the initiation of far-fetched criminal cases against the opposition brought an end to any perspectives of changing the court system into an independent arbiter.  The very guarantee of fair, impartial justice, notes Fukuyama, contributed to the social legitimization of governments in the Middle Ages.

Finally, the formation of a pro-presidential majority through bribery or pressure upon opposition deputies, total control over all organs of power, the growth of pressure on the media and the restriction on opportunities for community activity – all testified to the gradual destruction of even those institutions of accountability that had existed during the terms of Yanukovych’s predecessors.

The result of a prolonged preservation of such a defective situation is the deepening economic regression of the state and its political decline.  For this very reason, the weak absolutism of Europe in the 18th century led to revolutions and radical reorganization of relations between society and the state.  But the defense of the privileged classes’ comfortable model of state function could be defeated only by mass social mobilization. These uprisings were directed not only towards a change in the rules of the game, but also towards the forceful deprivation of the aristocratic groups’ status and private privileges. In contemporary conditions, states Fukuyama, forceful methods of changing models of weak absolutism become increasingly less possible because the world community no longer accepts violence. For this reason, he believes, the formation of social coalitions and their mobilization with a goal of regime change take on such widespread support in many authoritarian countries wounded by stagnation. 

Ukraine has already had the experience of such social mobilization, but it did not result in quality improvement of the model of governmental rule. Fukuyama’s book allows us to understand the primary reason for this: the absence of an effective state government and the disregard of institution-building. Indeed, the transfer to the liberal democratic model requires simultaneous formation of three key institutions, which can be created only under conditions of a strong state. This is the lesson of the successful transformation of 17th century England. At the same time, no less important is the existence of a well-organized society. As the experience of Georgia's transformation in the 21st century shows, an effective centralized state is always a threat to social autonomy and, in the absence of social opposition, can lead to the establishment of “strong absolutism.”  Thus, the path of present-day states to a liberal-democratic model will differ in its essence from that of successful European countries.  But the mechanism and final goal of this path become much more understood thanks to Fukuyama’s analysis of the sources of political order. 

Translation edited by Mayhill C. Fowler.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka