Political Science and Politics in Ukraine after the February Revolution

From: JUPS #1, 2015 (pp. 1-17).

Flash mob performance of 'United Ukraine' in Zhytomyr. Photograph: Zoya Yukhymchuk/UNIAN (2014)
April 2015
Institutional Design

The post-communist states, and the states of the “third wave” more broadly, have driven an immense literature on institutional design. The notion that constitutions and other formal rules can channel politics is not inherently North American, but this perspective has been particularly prevalent in US political science for two reasons. First, most Americans understand their own experience in terms of the genius of the constitutional framers in 1787, and see much of what followed as constrained by that document. Second, a huge and successful body of literature has studied the formal rules of the US Congress to show how the rules channel behavior and shape outcomes.

The debate about executive arrangements in the constitution has been typical. In asking about the ideal institutions for Ukraine, we tend to ask, “what works best in general,” the underlying assumption being that there are general rules, and that the traits that Ukraine shares with other states are more salient than those in which it differs. Much of the literature has centered on the relative prerogatives of the president and parliament, and while considerable controversy remains, the general consensus is that the stronger the presidency, the weaker democracy (Linz 1990; Stepan & Skach 1993; Linz & Valenzuela 1994; Easter 1997; Frye 1997; for application to Ukraine, see D’Anieri 2006a). Most of the democracies of Western Europe have parliamentary systems with presidencies that are ceremonial. In this literature, the US is considered an historical exception, but Ukraine is not.

A similar application of institutional design concerns the rules for parliamentary elections. Here again, political scientists have applied lessons gleaned more broadly to the case of Ukraine. A key question in the 1990s, when the parliament was fragmented and therefore ineffective, was what kind of electoral laws were likely to promote consolidation of parties and formation of a workable parliamentary majority. Much attention was focused on the effects of the “mixed” system that Ukraine adopted, in which half the members were elected in single-member districts and half were elected according proportional representation. The broader literature was applied to Ukraine, and the Ukrainian case was used to contribute to the broader understanding of mixed systems (Herron 2002).

In other respects as well, the comparative literature applied to Ukraine with good practical effect. In particular, the argument that a proportional representation system would strengthen parties led in part to the move from a full single-member district system to the mixed system and then, in 2006, to a fully proportional system. Moreover, it was understood correctly that the threshold for representation in a PR system would affect the number of parties that were represented in parliament and the fragmentation or consolidation of the party system. Unfortunately the same knowledge was available to aspiring autocrats as well as democrats, and under Viktor Yanukovych the country moved back to the mixed system in 2011.

In sum, comparative research on institutional design has had a solid record when applied to Ukraine, both in explaining outcomes and in helping design institutions to achieve certain outcomes. From the perspective of early 2014, it appears that there is much work to do. There is widespread acceptance of the dual-executive model, and the debate surrounds the relative prerogatives of the president and the prime minister (Protsyk 2003; Sydorchuk 2014). It is remarkable that in this respect, the European revolution of 2014 was initially neither particularly European nor revolutionary: protesters demanded not to adopt a European parliamentary system, but rather to reform the dual executive model so widespread among the autocratic regimes of the former Soviet Union. They sought a return to the 2004 “Orange” constitution that had led to non-stop conflict between president and prime minister until Yanukovych was elected in 2010 and subordinated the prime minister. Pressing questions today are whether the dual-executive model can be made more functional and more resistant to subversion, and whether these goals can be accomplished without weakening executive authority to the extent that important reforms cannot be implemented. It remains to be seen whether more support for a parliamentary system will emerge.

Identity Politics and Regionalism

Questions of identity politics and regionalism just hit the front pages of newspapers around the world in 2014, but they have been at the center of academic discussions about Ukrainian society and politics for decades (Wilson 1997; Arel 2006). In the post-Soviet era, key practical questions have centered on the ethnic versus civic basis of statehood, language policy, the implications of regional divisions for politics, and the potential for violence or separatism.

To study Ukraine’s ethnic, regional, religious, and linguistic divisions, political scientists and sociologists deployed two of the preferred tools of modern social science, the survey and multiple regression. Large-n surveys offered the potential to empirically measure identities across Ukraine. Multiple regression and its variants offered the ability to parse out the independent influences of different components of identity on political attitudes and voting behavior. Language, religion, and ethnicity often overlap with region of residence in Ukraine, making it challenging to discern which of these identities may be driving the others. Quantitative approaches allowed scholars to reveal patterns that were otherwise invisible. Most notable was the finding that region played a strong driving role—independent of language, religion, and ethnicity—in driving political values (Barrington 1997; Kubicek 2000, Barrington & Herron 2004).

Qualitative research uncovered an important distinction between Ukraine and many other multi-ethnic societies, namely that Ukrainian and Russian identities in Ukraine are not exclusive categories, but rather are often blurred or blended. This was widely confirmed once surveys began allowing respondents to choose multiple responses on identity questions. Many Ukrainians identified with both nationalities, and spoke both languages, which is not surprising given the significant amounts of intermarriage and the blurring of the two languages into the “surzhyk” often heard in Kyiv. Similarly, religious identities and affiliations were often not seen as opposing one another, but rather as different places in a common community. This blurring of compatible and sometimes overlapping identities made the dynamics of identity politics in Ukraine different from those in many other countries in significant ways that were not appreciated in the early 1990s. For example, David Laitin (1998) applied a cross-nationally derived rational choice model of language use and predicted that Kyiv would become a Ukrainian-speaking city, something that at least so far does not appear to be imminent. The empirical clarification of the nature of identity in Ukraine might be regarded as one of the major accomplishments of the social scientific study of Ukraine.

Beyond characterizing the salience of different sources of attitudes, political scientists sought to identify the implications of these divisions and to recommend policies that would strengthen democracy despite the internal identity cleavages. Some who focused on linguistic and ethnic divisions advocated tolerant language policies, on the grounds that the Russian-speaking community was too large and too concentrated to be ignored (Shulman 2002). This advice clashed with that of advocates of promoting Ukrainian language (Hrycak 2006). The essential difference, however, was not analytical but normative: some took the status quo as a starting point of analysis, whereas many advocates of Ukrainianization saw the status quo as the result of past Russification policies and therefore as, at least partially, illegitimate.

The events of 2014 have put identity politics at the top of the agenda again in Ukrainian politics.  The question of how to design institutions that can cope with Ukraine’s regional diversity is now a matter of the survival of the state. This is an issue on which there has been considerable cross-national research, especially in the literature on “consociational democracy,” which has yielded useful insight on Ukraine (Norris 2002; Stepan 2005, Stepan, Linz & Yadav 2011, Chap. 6). The study of identity politics across countries and the design of institutions is vexed by the fact that, identity cleavages can persist peacefully for many years and then quickly become activated with violent consequences. Were the events of 2014 simply a matter of time or were they fundamentally avoidable? This is not simply an academic question, as further ethnic violence and separatism are still very possible.

Early indications are that perceptions of the Euromaidan and the February 2014 revolution vary significantly by region. Russia’s use of ethnic conflict as a fig leaf for its invasion of Crimea further raises the stakes for identity politics. Moreover, the de facto federalization of Ukraine during the Euromaidan protests, when several regional administrations were seized by local forces—first to resist Yanukovych, then to resist the interim government—indicate that questions that remained in background for Ukraine’s first two decades now must be squarely faced. One of the key dilemmas surrounds federalism: on the one hand, a federal system might give different regions sufficient autonomy to dampen secessionist sentiment. On the other, once secessionist sentiment receives a certain level, a federal system facilitates separation, as shown both in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. Here is a place where cross-national research might be brought to bear. When does federalism help preserve a diverse society, and when does it not?

Another question that we now need to address is how the likely annexation of Crimea (and perhaps other regions) will affect subsequent identity politics in Ukraine. Two questions in particular loom large. First, how would it affect the balance of forces in Ukrainian elections? Crimeans voted in a large majority for Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, and throughout the post-Soviet era have voted for anti-reformist candidates. Without them, it will be much harder for a candidate whose support is based in eastern Ukraine to triumph. This in turn could reshape the dynamics of political competition at the national level. If one or more of the much more heavily populated eastern oblasts were separated from Ukraine, the electoral consequences would be dramatic. Second, which political forces and which causes will be empowered and disempowered in the response to the annexation of Crimea? Will nationalist politicians insisting on Ukrainianization gain influence, on the grounds that weak national identity is a security threat? Or will supporters of regional autonomy and linguistic pluralism gain influence, on the argument that only these policies will keep the country together?

Protest and Revolution

Protest and revolution have spurred a massive amount of research across the disciplines of history, sociology, and political science. There are enduring debates not only about the causes of revolution, but on the nature of revolution and the meaning of the term. It remains very difficult to explain after the fact (let alone to predict) when protests begin, when they will dissipate, to what extent authorities will repress them, and when revolution will occur.

In Ukraine, some of the most basic questions have been salient. Many scholars, for example, have expressed skepticism that the Orange Revolution was really a revolution at all, because rather than sweeping away the existing institutions, the pact reached in 2004 occurred within them and largely preserved them. To the extent that the definition of revolution includes major social change, what happened in 2004-5 clearly does not meet the standard. The events of 2014 provide a telling contrast. The most significant agreement—that underpinned by EU mediators in which Yanukovych would remain in power and elections would be moved up—collapsed rapidly when it was rejected by forces in the street and when the security forces defending Yanukovych disappeared from the streets. The Yanukovych regime simply collapsed and for several crucial days, there was no effective state power in Kyiv. Order was maintained by restraint and by non-state “self-defense” forces. The re-formation of state power was completely improvised and driven by power in the streets rather than by any agreed upon process. Whether these changes look revolutionary in retrospect remains to be seen.

Beyond the conceptual lack of clarity as to what was a revolution and what was not, explaining these protests, and characterizing them, has proven challenging. In discussing 2004, there remains disagreement over the basic driving force behind the protests. The dominant view focuses on transnational diffusion of protests and on the role of the protesters in the streets (Beissinger 2007; Bunce & Wolchik 2010; Hale 2005; Kuzio 2006; McFaul 2005; Tucker 2008). A minority focuses on elite competition, and sees the protesters in the streets and the transnational actors as having been mobilized largely by counter-elites (D’Anieri 2007; Way 2008). In many respects, this debate reflects the broader debate in the social movement literature about the relative importance of mobilization capacity and political opportunity structure in explaining variation in the incidence of contentious politics.

The contrasts between the 2004 and 2014 “revolutions” await a full scholarly study, but on the surface, they look quite different. Among the lessons of the 2004 events was the importance of elections as a “focal point” facilitating mobilization (Tucker 2008). So while many analysts were looking forward to the potential for protest surrounding the 2015 presidential elections, a more minor event—Yanukovych’s decision to spurn an EU association agreement—spurred the protest. It would have been hard to predict the initial outbreak of protest, since it would have been hard to predict that Yanukovych would go so far down the aisle with the EU before running from the altar. It would have been harder to predict, at the outset, that Yanukovych and the security forces would bother assaulting the tiny protest, or that their assault would have such a mobilizing effect on Ukrainian citizens, or that snipers would open fire on protesters, and so on until the February 2014 revolution. Path dependence, which seems to characterize this case, makes prediction extremely difficult (Jervis 1991-1992, p. 42-3). Path dependence also hinders general explanation, for it seems that every one of these crucial decisions, had it been made differently, could have led to a different outcome. This leads to a proliferation of necessary conditions for revolution to occur. Political science cannot solve the autocrat’s dilemma—when to repress protest. Nor can it reliably tell opposition leaders when protest will succeed. Even in Russia, where the Putin administration has strived to learn and implement every possible lesson about avoiding protest and revolution, Vladimir Putin was unable to prevent massive protests after the sham election that returned him to the presidency in 2012.

Immense effort will no doubt be expended documenting, describing, and explaining the revolutionary events of 2013-14 in Ukraine, but protest will also likely be a huge policy question looking forward as well. Two of the last three changes of presidency in Ukraine have been resolved in the streets. In this respect, protests appear to have as much legitimacy in Ukraine as elections. Building democracy will not be easy in such circumstances, and reforming an economy may be even harder, as aggrieved individuals have well-tested means of challenging the state, and the state has neither the means nor the legitimacy to repress protesters. More ominously, protests and the ejection of leaders by protests do not necessarily contribute to liberal democracy. All these phenomena, and the capacity of the Ukrainian state in particular, are subjects that merit deeper analysis than they have received. Both in the study of Africa and in the study of the post-communist states, state strength and state-society relations have been central issues (Beissinger & Young 2002), but this topic has been relatively neglected in the case of Ukraine.

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