Within the past two decades, the word ‘pragmatism’ has made an impressive career in post-Soviet countries, acquiring a profoundly different meaning from what it originally meant in Western vocabulary. Today, in Ukraine, it certainly stands not for a “philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily.” Rather, it stands for rejection of any ideology and any speculative theorizing on behalf of a practical activity guided primarily by a common sense.
Post-Soviet ‘pragmatists’ are typically members of the former communist nomenklatura who successfully monopolized the quasi-centrist political niche and marginalized their opponents from left and right as either crazy, ideologically obsessed extremists or naïve, utopia-prone romantics. They represent themselves as ‘real men’ who prefer deeds over words, rely on their sober, pragmatic mind and care about butter-and-bread issues rather than some abstract ideas and ideals. Post-Soviet pragmatism stands for everything good and is arguably a natural feature of the post-Soviet elite, apparently absent in their opponents.
Leonid Kuchma who served briefly as a prime minister under Leonid Kravchuk in 1993, became notorious in this regard. At some point, when addressing the Ukrainian deputies in the parliament, he asked them seriously to specify what he should build – socialism or capitalism – and he would complete the task. Since 1994, as a president, he became an embodiment of the post-Soviet pragmatism. Internationally, he pursued the so-called ‘multi-vector’ politics, flirting with both Moscow and the West, and benefitting personally from such a shuttling. Domestically, he assumed the peace-keeping role between east and west, left and right, Russophones and Ukrainophones, sending mixed messages to different sides and reacting opportunistically to different challenges on daily basis, without clear strategy or ideology. Manipulation was the essence of the post-Soviet ‘pragmatism’ that satisfied both the president and the ruling oligarchy in their need for stability and personal enrichment. Like most post-Soviet rulers, they had barely any idealistic notions about raison d’etat but they often pursued the state interest to the extent it coincided with their own interests (etat c’est moi). They did not have any principles or ideals that could not be compromised or sold out. But they perfectly felt the price of each issue and could effectively bargain.
This made many observers to expect that the comeback of Viktor Yanukovych, Leonid Kuchma’s picked up successor, aborted in 2004 by the Orange revolution, would mean a return of the same kind of oligarchic ‘pragmatism’ – after five years of chaotic Viktor Yushchenko’s misrule attributed to his ‘romanticism’. Surprisingly yet, the new president proved to be even more ideologically driven than his predecessor – with the only difference that his ideology is radically opposite to that of Yushchenko, and its implementation is far less vegetarian as it used to be under a feckless ‘bee-keeper’ as Yushchenko was nick-named.
So far, Yanukovych exposes a striking absence of any ‘pragmatism’. He makes a lot of steps deemed irrational by all means. One can list a huge number of dubious deals with Russia that are rightly perceived as one-sided, non-reciprocal concessions to Kremlin resembling a kind of post-war contributions imposed by the victors upon the defeated country. There are also a lot of symbolical gestures, personnel nominations, divisive policies and provocative decisions that bring no benefit not only to the nation but also to the ruling oligarchy and president himself. They can be deemed absolutely irrational and subversive from any pragmatic point of view – as long as this point of view is Ukrainian, not Russian.
All the attempts of Ukrainian observers to find some rationale for this apparent irrationality lead ultimately to four possible explanations, two of them of psychological, and two of conspiratorial character. None hypothesis, however, excludes the other, so they can be effectively combined and attain some probability.
The first explanation is the simplest one: Yanukovych and Party of Regions are taking revenge and hit their Orange opponents where it pains them most – Ukrainian identity, language and culture, education, historical narrative, independent (from Moscow) church, Euro-Atlantic integration and attempts at decoupling from Russia. The revenge might be a serious business, indeed, since Yanukovych and Party of Regions have never recognized their 2004 defeat. They still tend to strongly believe that their victory was stolen by the ‘Orangists’ with the U.S. support; they feel they are victims of Western conspiracy and Kuchma’s betrayal. Moreover, their confrontational anti-Ukrainian policy might be not quite irrational since they cannot but fell a significant correlation between the Ukrainian identity and pro-Western, pro-democratic orientations of the electorate. Indeed, as Alexander Motyl aptly put it, “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”. In other words, Yanukovych’s policy of Russification and re-Sovietization of Ukraine are very similar to the policies of Alyaksandr Lukashenko in Belarus. However divisive and confrontational they are in a short term, in a long run they may be believed to bring huge advantage to the authoritarian rulers by undermining the electoral base of their pro-Western, pro-democratic opponents.
The second explanation refers to psychological complexes of the new rulers who are very provincial in their culture and education and general world-view. Most of them grew up in the heavily Sovietized south-east, with no knowledge of western languages, no experience of living, or studying, or working abroad, no idea about the normative character of western values but, at the same time, with the whole set of anti-Western stereotypes and anti-Ukrainian biases promoted by the late Soviet Union and today’s Putin’s Russia. For most of them, Moscow is the only political and civilizational Center they really know, understand, and feel comfortable with, sharing the values, habits, language and culture. Most of them have very narrow, ‘Donbass’ mentality and may sincerely believe that the whole Ukraine can be managed as the neighboring Russia and their own region. They may also feel some inferiority complexes vis-à-vis Moscow that is still perceived as the ultimate authority who legitimizes their dubious rule. In a sense, Yanukovych’s behavior may resemble attempts of a little boy to make older friends, to join their company and be accepted as ‘ours’, by giving them all the assets he has – either candies, or post-stamps, or even family valuables that do not belong to him. Actually, Yanukovych demonstrated such an irrationality not only by giving Russians too much for nothing but also conceding enriched uranium to Americans without any clear and tangible reciprocation. Yanukovych’s uncertainty about his full legitimacy and professional fitness to rule a large European country may dwell subconsciously behind his seemingly irrational steps.
The third explanation is the least demonstrable even though quite feasible. Yanukovych, a relatively late Christian convert, is arguably under a strong influence of Russian Orthodox Church and, in particular, of Patriarch Kirill – Putin’s right hand, arguably with a similar KGB background. There are predictably no direct proofs of this but there are many rumors about Kirill’s and his local representative Vladimir’s successful lobbying of some important decisions made by the incumbent Ukrainian president. The most scandalous of them was nomination of a staunch Ukrainophobe Dmytro Tabachnyk a minister of education. This occurred not only despite any practical political advisability, mass students’ protests, and opposition’s outcry, but also despite strong objections within the ruling camp (suffice to say that not long ago one of the Party of Regions leaders and major oligarchs, a deputy prime minister in today’s government Borys Kolesnikov called Mr Tabachnyk openly “a clown and a thief”; the statement was broadly spread by the media but neither apologies nor libel suits followed).
And finally, the fourth explanation revolves around the alleged ‘kompromat’ against Yanukovych inherited probably by FSB from the KGB archives and used effectively nowadays for blackmail. The compromising materials may refer to his early convictions for robbery and rape (the second case is denied by Yanukovych’s lawyers but a murky disappearance of all the relevant court materials leaves a vast field for various speculations). They may also include his informer activity while in prison and afterwards that facilitated arguably his fast career, rather unusual for ex-convict, and even more unusual membership in the Communist party and trips to the West.
Whatever the truth, it is really difficult to find any other reasonable explanations for a great many policies, personnel nominations, and political-cum-economic concessions made by Viktor Yanukovych in a clear contradiction not only to the national interest (that might be an empty word for all his class) but also to the interest of a major part of oligarchy and even of himself – as of a leader of independent nation. Now, the crucial question emerges how far all these policies and concessions would lead and what kind of response they would evoke, both domestically and internationally.
Sooner or later, the president or, at least his associates, must recognize that the Kremlin would never be satisfied with any concessions they make. The reason is simple: Moscow does not need any friendship and partnership in the 'near abroad'. It needs full obedience. And this is why neither Voronin, nor Shevardnadze, nor Kuchma, nor even Lukashenko, despite all their hopes and intentions, have ever been and would ever be sufficiently good for Kremlin.
Yanukovych’s team is certainly not an absolute evil and totalitarian monolith. It consists of various groups which can be roughly subsumed under two headings – pro-Moscow hawks connected to the notorious RosUkrEnergo and probably FSB/SVR; and ‘pragmatic’ doves pursuing a Kuchma-style multi-vector, quasi-centrist policy. So far, the hawks’ policies seem to prevail. They strongly alienate not only committed Ukrainophones who feel their identity under pressure, but also civil society at large, which finds civic freedoms under serious threat. The small and medium business sector is also set against the new economic and, in particular, fiscal policies of Yanukovych’s government. And some signs of anxiety emerge even among Ukrainian oligarchs who are increasingly dissatisfied with Russian dominance in all areas. The last straw might be the ultimate disappointment of Yanukovych’s rank-and-file pro-Russian electorate with economic and anti-corruption promises that are very unlikely to be delivered.
A regime change looks rather inevitable – if the next, 2012 parliamentary and/or 2015 presidential elections are free and fair, as they have been in Ukraine in the past five years. But here the main question dwells: how far will the incumbent government proceed in curbing media freedom, suppressing the opposition, subjugating the courts, bribing and intimidating civil servants, and using violence against protesters? If allegations of Russian involvement hold true, the puppet government may proceed beyond any limits. Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya might be a graphic example. Western benign neglect in this case would be not only self-deceiving but also self-defeating.
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