Political Science and Politics in Ukraine after the February Revolution

April 2015

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

Flash mob performance of 'United Ukraine' in Zhytomyr. Photograph: Zoya Yukhymchuk/UNIAN (2014)
Foreign Policy

International politics is often seen as a distinct discipline from the rest of political science, because it deals not with politics within sovereign states, but among them, and a long line of scholars has contended that these are two fundamentally different kinds of politics. Nonetheless, the study of international politics does, especially in North America, aspire to be a social science and to connect social science to policy goals. In this field, much less has been done in Ukrainian studies than in many of the topics considered by comparative politics. There have been relatively few studies of Ukrainian foreign policy that are explicitly social scientific. Some have applied theories from the broader study of international politics to Ukraine (D’Anieri 1999; Moroney, Kuzio & Molchanov 2002; Kravets 2011). Others have included Ukraine as a case in a comparative study and illuminated Ukraine in the process (Abdelal 2001). But much more of this research has been focused on particular policy problems and has examined them with little if any specific reference to broader patterns or theories of international politics. This is the field in which the North American study of Ukraine has been most “traditionalist” in its approach.

For Ukraine, foreign policy is an area—more so than many areas of domestic politics—in which the unique and hard-to-compare aspects of the country’s situation appear to outweigh the easily compared aspects. The problem of denuclearization is a case in point. There are very few comparable cases, and except for Belarus and Kazakhstan, they occurred in vastly different circumstances. Nonetheless, we might hope for more. In particular, there exists the potential for comparative or large-n analysis within Ukrainian foreign policy. We now have four presidencies to compare, various institutional arrangements, and some issues that have been dealt with repeatedly over twenty years. These are ripe for comparative analysis. However, these areas tend not to be the ones that interest us most, and that is not likely to change the relationships with Russia and Europe will continue to dominate the agenda, and recent events imply a fundamental break that will make comparison with previous years difficult. Two ongoing issues point to the continuity in Ukrainian foreign policy over time, even as Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory represents a fundamental discontinuity.

One is the economic and political relationship with Russia. Several early studies (Motyl 1993; Garnett 1996; D’Anieri 1999; a more contemporary study is Balmaceda 2013) pointed to the fundamental dilemma that Ukraine faces in its relationship with Russia: how to square Ukraine’s deep economic interdependence with Russia with its desire to be politically independent of Russia. That is a problem that states around the world face, but few face it as starkly as Ukraine. Even in 2014, as Russia seizes Ukrainian territory, Ukraine finds itself needing to preserve the flow of energy to Ukraine, and the availability of Russian markets for Ukrainian goods. A great deal of advice about how to reorient Ukraine’s economy toward the west will no doubt be forthcoming, and cross-national comparison has much to contribute. The question is whether Ukraine has the state capacity to implement such policies, for these policies have been self-evident for two decades, with little progress to show.

A second issue is the relationship with Europe. As Abdelal (2001) has shown, post-communism turns conventional thinking about nationalism and foreign economic policy on its head. Conventional analysis holds that nationalism in economic policy is equivalent to the promotion of autonomy and rejection of integration and supranationalism. Abdelal showed that for some of the post-communist states, nationalism was expressed by integration with Europe. This phenomenon is particularly salient in Ukraine today, when the question of joining Europe drove a revolution and then an invasion. How will the cataclysmic events of 2013-present shape attitudes toward Europe, and will the desire to join Europe build support for badly needed reforms?

The Obstacles to Successful Political Science on Ukraine

In many respects, the substantive questions of 2014 mirror the questions we have been asking since 1991. Ukraine’s inability to make progress has left it addressing the same problems over and over again (D’Anieri 2011). Few predicted the Orange Revolution, few predicted the February 2014 revolution, debate continues over institutional design, and no one has been able to chart a viable path to judicial reform, sustainable economic growth, or a workable foreign policy strategy. If the goals of social science as generally practiced in North America are to explain how politics works and to prescribe polices to achieve desirable goals, we might ask why we have not accomplished more.

In this section, I propose a simple answer to that question: the project of political science as conceived of in North America is a very difficult one, and there are numerous barriers to success. This has little to do with Ukraine in particular, although Ukraine does have some particular challenges. Skeptics of political science often point out ways in which the project seems futile. Not one, but two important articles entitled “Is a [the] Science of Comparative Politics Possible,” with the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre voicing extreme skepticism and the political scientist Adam Przeworski (2009) being positively inclined while demonstrating important limits.

Below, I highlight eight inherent barriers to successful explanation and prescription. None of these points are new; all have been made by other scholars in other contexts. I simply apply them to the study of Ukraine. Moreover, none of these barriers invalidate political science as a discipline or diminish its utility in informing policy discussions. Indeed, political science is essential to the critical evaluation of competing policy proposals. Whether we admit it or not, policy prescriptions are always based on some understanding of causes and effects. Political science seeks to make those understandings explicit and to test them empirically. It is better at falsifying questionable theories than at definitively proving truths.

1. Problems of Comparison

MacIntyre points out that, due to cultural differences, the same concepts rarely mean the same thing in different countries. Therefore it is very difficult to actually compare the same things in different countries. “Democracy” is likely just such a term. Thus cross-national surveys asking respondents about democracy may inadvertently compare different ideas. MacIntyre claims that different formal institutions likely play different roles in different societies. This kind of critique is at the heart of “area studies” based critiques of applying cross-national findings to Ukraine.

The problem has been more salient in some areas than others. The finding in the comparative literature—that strong presidencies correlate poorly with sustained democracy—has fit well with Ukraine’s experience; the problems that arose in Ukraine are similar to those that emerged elsewhere. However, as noted above, the somewhat unique relationship between the Ukrainian and Russian languages have made it harder to apply cross-nationally derived findings on language policy. Similarly, research in Ukraine shows that institutions, intentionally or otherwise, often end up performing different roles than envisioned in cross-national analysis (Allina-Pisano 2008).

2. Isolating Variables

Przeworski (2009) points out that many factors in which we are interested tend to correlate with one another: wealth, democracy, rule of law, and civil liberties. This makes it very difficult to isolate these variables as one would do in a pure scientific model. The rarity of such “natural experiments” impedes the specification of clear relationships among many of the phenomena that concern us. This difficulty in disentangling correlated phenomena leads to a very prominent problem in crafting recommendations for reform: it is essential to sort out causes from effects, and to identify which steps are prior to others. This is a serious issue in Ukraine, where numerous “chicken and egg” issues exist. For example, combatting corruption depends on building a strong state, but the state cannot easily be strengthened when it is so corroded by corruption. Similarly, separating the closely related concepts of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, and region has proven tricky.

3. Competing Priorities

In contrast to situations where important variables correlate with one another, there are situations in which important priorities seem to contradict one another. Two variables that seem, to some, to be in tension are state strength and democracy. In many western democracies, strong states were built under autocracy, and were later liberalized. Ukraine is trying to build a state and democracy at the same time. Some wonder if this is possible, but few are willing to choose one over the other, especially since the argument that a strong state is required before democracy can be built (or before a market economy can be built) seems to justify autocracy. In Ukraine, a case in point was the adoption of the constitution in 1996, when many Ukrainians (and western observers) supported Kuchma’s coercive adoption of a highly presidentialist constitution on the grounds that this concentration of authority was needed to overcome opposition to reform in the leftist-controlled parliament.

4. Values and Goals

Social science does not have anything to say about what values and goals policy should pursue. Thus many major questions for a newly independent state are not subject to political science, and some of the findings of political science are trumped by normative goals. In the case of Ukraine, this is evident in the sphere of ethnic politics and language policy. Predicting the effects of a particular language regime is an empirical question; choosing a language policy is primarily a normative question. Unfortunately, these two kinds of issues were sometimes conflated, and there has been some tendency to advocate the empirical argument that best supports one’s normative position. Political science may be able to address the causal questions, but it cannot address the value questions. Similarly, there has been a great deal of mixing of normative preferences and analytical arguments in the area of economic reform and in the related area of relations with Europe and with Russia.

5. Scholarly Disagreement

The kinds of debates on which social scientists thrive undermine the ability of policy makers—from constitution writers to corruption fighters—to apply political science effectively. There remains considerable uncertainty about many of the causal relationships that concern us most. What causes democracy? What causes economic development? If democracy and development are correlated, what is the relationship—is one driving the other, or are both driven by some third variable? Scientific debate is not unique to political science—it occurs in physics as well—but because we are so eager to apply findings to policy, scientific disagreement is especially salient. Efforts to use political science to inform policy are hampered by the paucity of unambiguous answers to the most important questions.

6. The Problem of Agency

Another problem that hampers the application of political science to policy is that of agency. Even if we can clearly identify the causes of a particular phenomenon, if we cannot manipulate those causes, we cannot influence the outcomes. A good example is research on geography and democratization. It has been widely noted that, among the post-communist states, there is a correlation between geography and democracy, with those located further to the west, other things being equal, scoring higher on democracy measures (Kopstein & Reilly 2000). To the extent that geography, by itself, is having an effect, there is not much one can do. To the extent that geography is a surrogate for other factors, there may or may not be hope: if the key factor is a favorable reception from the European Union, than change is possible; if the key factor is historical connection to the Roman Empire, then nothing can be done. A central underpinning of almost all North American research on Ukraine is the belief that Ukraine can become a liberal democracy in the foreseeable future.

7. Collective Action Problems

A great many of public policy issues are beset by collective action problems, in which cooperating makes sense only if one can be assured that others will behave the same way. For example, while it is fairly easy to state that citizens and officials should not engage in corruption, for the citizen hoping to get a permit to renovate an apartment, refusing to pay a bribe is irrational if no one else changes their behavior. Corruption is not, therefore, reduced and the citizen loses the opportunity. A related example is macro-level economic reform. It takes a determined and powerful actor to enact far-reaching reforms, but no actor may have sufficient power to do so. Gaining the assent of other power holders is necessary, but these politicians are all competing for power with one another, and have much incentive to avoid being perceived as responsible for unpopular decisions. What all these problems have in common is a suboptimal outcome that is a stable equilibrium. The implication is that for social scientists, identifying the “best” policy is not the hard part as this does not fully solve the problem. A large literature in political science has elaborated the conditions that make collective action problems easier or harder to solve, and has identified institutions that can facilitate reaching solutions. Yet, many collective action problems continue to resist solution. This problem connects to that of agency discussed above: the nature of collective action problems is that no single agent has the ability and incentive to solve the problem unilaterally.

8. Power and Interest versus Reform

The final  and perhaps most significant  problem is that which the realist international relations scholar Hans Morgenthau (1946) memorably characterized as Scientific Man versus Power Politics. The application of political science to solve problems assumes the desire to solve achieves certain goals, such as the creation of democracy, the increase in economic growth, and the maintenance of international security. And while there is considerable debate over both of the normative goals, that debate is still grounded in goals that are assumed to be public and shared. Much of politics, however, is not about shared goals, but about private goals. If everyone is concerned with building democracy, we can focus on the question of how. But for many actors, and not only the most venal, private goals compete with public goals. Government decisions affect wealth and privilege. This gives people an incentive to try to control the government, and this desire spills over into a desire to design institutions that will favor their control over government. This of course is not unique to Ukraine, and furthermore, it is a problem that social science cannot solve.

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