Ukraine’s patronalistic regime is trying to preserve itself

The old clans are re-asserting their power in Ukraine again, while staying on a European course. In Ukraine pro-European political action never was necessarily an expression of sincere intentions to transform the country itself.  The West must force president Poroshenko to keep his promises, writes Andreas Umland.

by Andreas Umland

Strange things are happening in Kyiv. In spring 2017, two prominent Ukrainian politicians — Mykola Martynenko, a former MP, and Roman Nasirov, former head of country’s fiscal service — were arrested on corruption charges to significant fanfare. Soon, however, both men were released: Nasirov on a bail of UAH 100 million (€ 3,3 million) paid by his wife, and Martynenko without any bail. While the cases remain under investigation, the two suspects are free to move.

What does all this mean? In his recent book Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective, Henry E. Hale, a political scientist at George Washington University, outlines a comprehensive new theory of post-Soviet political rule that helps to explain the curious contradictions in Ukraine’s politics today. Hale demonstrates the deep penetration of patron-client relationships, clan-like networks and rent-extracting mechanisms into post-Soviet socio-political life. This allows him to assert the existence of hidden regimes in these countries — where political competition and decision-making are incompletely or not at all reflected in the officially recorded actions of state institutions, political parties and civic organizations.

In patronal political regimes, power is accumulated and exercised through pyramid structures headed by men (sometimes, women) at the helm of large economic conglomerates, regional political machines, or central state administrations.

It is, however, less the official position of the patron or oligarch that gives him (rarely – her) power than the capacity of being the boss of such a semi-secret pyramid that, in turn, often consists of smaller pyramidic clans headed by sub-patrons directing separate circles of clients. The glue that holds these complicated coteries together are less institutional hierarchies than familial ties, personal friendships, long-term acquaintances, informal transactions, mafia-like behaviour codes, accumulated obligations, withheld compromising materials (kompromat), as well as plain fear.

Euromaidan’s impetus

No wonder that one of the major slogans of Ukraine’s 2013-2014 anti-oligarchic so-called Revolution of Dignity was ‘Banda – het!’: ‘Away with the gang!’ Former President Viktor Yanukovych’s family, in conjunction with a larger network of friends and comrades, had become so greedy and unashamed in their plundering of the state — as well as so brazen and ruthless in the defence of their kleptocratic rule — that millions of citizens across the country decided to participate in a three-months long and eventually bloody uprising against his clan.

Oligarchs Ukraine.EuromaidanPress 1
Dmytro Firtash, Rinat Akhmetov, Viktor Pinchuk, Petro Poroshenko, Ihor Kolomoyskyi. (c) Ganna Naronina, Euromaidan Press 

Yet behind the scenes, some other oligarchs also supported the upheaval from the beginning, or later switched to supporting it.

This became apparent when, in spite of the outspokenly anti-oligarchic direction of the protest, the well-known ‘oligarch’ Petro Poroshenko — elected on a platform of peace-making in eastern Ukraine — replaced Yanukovych as Ukraine’s super-patron. Poroshenko’s candidacy for president had been decided at a semi-secret meeting between him, Ukraine’s most notorious oligarch Dmytro Firtash and the then front-runner Vitalii Klychko, in Vienna on 24 March 2014 — one month after the victory of the Euromaidan. This cabal as well as some other suspicious events during this period had raised doubts about the supposed regime change in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity from the start.

To be sure, Poroshenko has proven to be much different from Yanukovych in terms of the ideology and sophistication of his rule. Under the pressure of Ukrainian civil society, Western states and foreign financial donors, he has not only passively allowed, but also actively promoted considerable administrative and economic reforms.

Both domestically and internationally, Poroshenko has proven to be Ukraine’s most professional and flexible president so far, manoeuvring the country through an exceptionally difficult period of foreign invasion, economic collapse and social transition. During his first three years of rule, Ukraine has made remarkable advances in, for instance, the reform of its energy and banking sectors, modernisation of its armed forces, improvement of its relations to the West, remaking of its once notorious police force, resetting of its public procurement system, and decentralisation of its state apparatus. Some further deep transformations in various fields, including public health and higher education, are on their way.

Under Poroshenko, Ukraine and the EU also have signed and ratified an exceptionally large Association Agreement and implemented a demanding Visa Liberalisation Action Plan the successful completion of which has been allowing Ukrainians, since June 2017, to visit the Schengen zone, for short terms, visa-free.

Yet the pre-history of Kyiv’s recent historical achievements with Brussels also illustrate a fundamental risk in Ukraine’s apparent Europeanisation.

Oddly, the Association Agreement had been negotiated and the large treaty’s text was already initialled under Yanukovych. The implementation of the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan too had started long before the victory of the Revolution of Dignity. Only when it appeared to him necessary, Yanukovych postponed the signing of the Association Agreement at the eleventh hour. This indicates that pro-European political action is not necessarily an expression of sincere intention really transform the country. Even Yanukovych’s regime paradoxically played a temporarily constructive role in the rapprochement between Ukraine and EU. In the meantime, that did not prevent his clique to simultaneously conduct one of the largest robberies of state funds and property in modern history.

The story now repeats, on a smaller scale, this paradox. Poroshenko’s regime too delivers contradictory results. It first allows, in line with Western expectations and demands from civil society, the law-enforcement agencies to spectacularly arrest Nasirov and Martynenko. Yet later on, the same regime sets the suspected robbers of millions of state funds free. You could observe such contradictory developments in many affairs of post-Euromaidan Ukraine.

Yanukovich clan 
Former president Viktor Yanukovich, with his Kharkiv-governor Mikhail Dobkin and city-mayor Gennady Kernes. Photo Shutterstock

Patronalism and Europeanisation

Against the background of Hale’s theory of post-Soviet patronalism, these contradictions aren’t that much of a surprise. Within a patronal political regime, officially pro-western foreign policies may easily co-exist with hyper-corrupt policies at home, as long as this tension does not touch upon the ruling clan’s core financial and other interests. Even apparently substantive domestic reforms can be conducted by a patronalistic regime, if there is an opportunity to secure the coherence of the ruling informal pyramid and preserve at least some core sources of power, influence and income.

But now, the regime’s problem with the accelerating move towards punishment of corrupt officials is that it not only threatens members of the formerly dominant Donetsk clan of Viktor Yanukovych. It now also touches more and more directly core members, sub-patrons and key clients of Poroshenko’s ruling network.

Therefore, the recently accumulating anti-corruption measures – new regulations and institutions fiercely defended by an increasingly impatient civil society and demonstratively supported by various Western institutions – have created some dangerous momentum. Their attack on various corrupt schemes could weaken the Poroshenko clan vis-à-vis other networks, like those of former prime-minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in the wake of the 2019 presidential elections. Or it could even mean the start of the dismantling of the patronalistic regime altogether, and its step-by-step replacement with a political system containing real political parties, and regulated by the rule of law.

Both of these outcomes would mean the end of Poroshenko’s oligarchic rule — unless Poroshenko decides to put himself at the helm of the anti-corruption campaign.

Poroshenko: past and present

The latter is unlikely, however. It is a choice that Poroshenko has had to make already for more than three years by now. That the current Ukrainian president would go this path was the hope of many (including myself) in 2014. Yet given Poroshenko’s ambivalent past before the Revolution of Dignity, and curious rise to power in spring 2014, the chances for such a development were always slim. Rather, Poroshenko was and remains one of Ukraine’s notorious oligarchs who more manifestly than others combined official political posts with continuing economic activity in the food and automotive industry, as well as in television. 

While he has been a less scandalous figure than, for instance, Rinat Akhmetov and Dmytro Firtash, his richer competitors and notorious co-oligarchs, Poroshenko is flesh of the flesh of the old system and its patronal politics. He was one of the co-founders of the notorious Party of Regions dissolved after the Revolution of Dignity. During the acrimonious infighting between Ukraine’s officially pro-western political forces after the 2004 Orange Revolution, Poroshenko functioned for a while as president Viktor Yushchenko’s attack dog in the latter’s attempts to oust or prevent Tymoshenko as prime minister. He was a minister under both Yushchenko and Yanukovych while, at the same time, continuing to develop his various business-interests.

Poroshenko’s candidacy for, and assumption of, Ukraine’s presidential office was apparently the result of the already mentioned shady post-Euromaidan deal between him, Firtash and Klitschko. The latter was then still a largely extra-systemic politician who had not or only to limited degree participated in Ukraine’s informal exchange mechanisms. The former boxing champion had become the prime contender for the presidency already before the Revolution of Dignity, according to opinion polls. Yet, for still not fully disclosed reasons, Klitschko — during the dubious meeting with Poroshenko and Firtash in Vienna in March 2014 — agreed to put forward his candidacy merely for the post of mayor of Kyiv, thus opening the field for Poroshenko as the main candidate of Ukraine’s pro-western forces for president. Within only two months, Poroshenko’s campaign managed to secure for him a victory already in the first round of the presidential elections in May 2014

Poroshenko made the crucial step in defining the nature of his five-year presidency immediately after the election. When he successfully pushed for snap parliamentary elections for October 2014, Poroshenko failed to combine this timely and apt move with an attempt to change electoral legislation. This left the previous mixed system for parliamentary elections, in which half of the deputies are elected proportionally via closed party lists and the other in single-member districts, in place.

This system had earlier proven to be beneficial to the preservation of Ukraine’s old clan structures and patronal politics. The closed-list system allows parties to sell positions on their lists to the highest bidder. Majoritarian elections in provincial electoral districts, in turn, are hampered by the scarcity of effective NGOs, political organisations, mass media, critical observers, independent entrepreneurs and legal expertise outside Kyiv and some other large cities. The flattened civic landscape, local concentration of power, and semi-anarchical state of affairs in many Ukrainian regions allowed resident strongmen and/or particularly well-financed contenders to manipulate the electoral campaigns and processes there to such a degree as to make just and meaningful political competition difficult. 

To date, a long-discussed new electoral law providing for open party lists, and other safeguards against manipulation during Ukraine’s next parliamentary elections in 2018, have still not been passed.

Poroshenko Klichko
Poroshenko and Klichko after their deal about the presidency.

Empire strikes back

Moreover, since early 2016, there is a more and more obviously concerted campaign under way that aims to complicate, control and/or defame the work of various Ukrainian officials, activists and institutions engaged in the limitation or extermination of corruption.

For instance, one of Ukraine’s most famous journalists and MPs engaged in the disclosure of various bribing schemes and other secret political deals, Serhiy Leshchenko, became, during 2016, the target of a purposeful libelling campaign. Leshchenko’s credibility and independence was questioned in connection with the acquisition, by him and his girlfriend (a successful Ukrainian DJ), of a flat in downtown Kyiv.

More recently, the government-controlled factions in Ukraine’s parliament have engaged in manipulation of the procedure and results of the appointment of the head of the supervisory board that will oversee the activity of the most reputed Ukrainian governmental anti-bribery institution, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). 

Most worryingly, in April 2017, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a dubious amendment on the Ukrainian law on electronic income and asset declarations for Ukrainian state officials. Now, not only the president, ministers, MPs, bureaucrats and other governmental employees will have to make their personal financial situation public, but also an ill-defined circle of Ukrainian anti-corruption NGO leaders. This extraordinary new regulation picks out anti-corruption activists from all other Ukrainian non-governmental actors who do not have to declare their personal income and assets. It forces an already embattled and threatened circle of civic leaders to disclose their private financial situation, even if these persons are not engaged in the administration and distribution of Ukrainian tax money and public funds.

The new rule leaves the unhealthy impression that anti-corruption activists need to be especially supervised by the government — an approach that turns the interaction between civil society and the government, in a modern democratic state, on its head.

To be sure, it may well be that anti-corruption campaigns are misused for other purposes. It does not take much fantasy to imagine that Ukraine’s crafty oligarchs and their ‘political technologists’ will be or already are utilising fake civic groups to attack their economic competitors or political foes under the pretext of a supposed fight against bribery. Yet such possible defamation and similar campaigns need to be prevented and fought against as such. Anti-corruption initiatives should not be hindered by government intrusion that assumes the possible misuse of civil society for private or political gains, with regard to all anti-bribery NGOs, independently of any serious allegations of misbehaviour or not.

Apparently the clan bosses are increasingly feeling the heat of the multiple reforms going on in a wide variety of fields since 2014. They are especially concerned about the accelerating fight against political graft, informal deal-making, and large-scale bribe-taking. Perhaps their partially successful countermeasures can be even seen as positive signs. They signal the (at least, potential) effectiveness of the new anti-corruption institutions.

Firtasj wikimedia
Dmitri Firtash. Picture Wikimedia

Western interests 

In this escalating battle, western donors and embassies need to make sure that they end up on the right side of the barricade.

The current political turmoil in the United States and European Union is not conducive to well-informed and differentiated decision-making. Washington and Brussels are currently facing a whole array of competing domestic and foreign challenges. They distract the attention of western governments, organisations and publics from the intricacies of Ukrainian domestic affairs and general complexities of post-Soviet patronalistic regimes. But Ukraine is too important a country for the future of Europe, and the window of opportunity has too many geopolitical consequences to be missed.

The hidden restoration tendencies that are currently underway in Ukraine have been labelled by Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak as a “sweet counter-revolution” (in reference to Poroshenko’s confectionary business Roshen).

On the other side, Ukrainian civil society is gearing up for a new confrontation with the old system, and needs Western help in finishing the job.

Governmental foreign actors and development agencies are usually prescribed to cooperate only with their counterparts in the Ukrainian government and above all the presidential administration. Today, though, this general rule needs to be applied with more caution than ever. Numerous Ukrainian numerous state offices, services, ministries, agencies and courts as well as non-governmental allegedly not-for-profit organisations remain, to one degree or another, infiltrated by private interests.

Western donors should thus support tainted institutions neither symbolically, nor practically and — least of all — financially. Help should only be given conditionally, to carefully examined projects. It should be only transferred via the trusted hands of reputed officials, some of which have recently left government.

At the end of the day: the president

At the end of the day, the West’s prime attention should concern the country’s president. Poroshenko’s behaviour, rhetoric and fate will determine, to a large degree, where the country goes. While being an archetypal oligarch, Poroshenko is a smart politician who is able to better calculate his fortunes than his rather primitive predecessor Yanukovych. Poroshenko needs to be made understood that the war in the Donets Basin and the confrontation with Russia cannot serve as an excuse for even a partial preservation of Ukraine’s old patronalistic system. It should be made clear to the president and his comrades-in-arms that those who are responsible will eventually, in one way or another, be punished — if not today, because of the war, then later on, once the war is over.

Last but not least, the West should get its own house in order. We need to get serious about those Western banks, firms and other private as well as sometimes even public actors who are helping post-Soviet elites to secure, hide and launder improperly earned money. The West cannot demand from Ukraine and similar countries a more resolute fight against corruption while continuing to go soft on the various Western companies and groups involved in dubious deals with likely criminals from the post-Soviet world.

Abridged version
Original version published by Open Democracy – Russia and beyond

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