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)
Conclusion: Political Science in a World of Power Politics

While collective action problems are in principle solvable, zero-sum games cannot be solved cooperatively. They can be solved only through the exercise of power. Nearly every governmental decision has distributive consequences, in terms of which people win office, which firms get contracts, which workers get benefits, or which industries find a more congenial playing field. In each case where there are winners and losers, we can expect rational, self-interested actors to pursue their interests. Who wins is determined by who has power, and thus power becomes an end in itself.

Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency was emblematic of this phenomenon. Having captured the state, Yanukovych and his associates sought to put the state to work pursuing their private goals. They also revised Ukraine’s constitution to make it harder for others to compete with them for power.  Moreover, events to some extent validated their concern—when their power flagged, they were ejected from power and forced to flee the country. However, the problem of power is much more universal—one need not envision a Yanukovych or a Kuchma for the problem to be profound. Even Viktor Yushchenko, who was generally regarded as being somewhat oriented to the public good, found that in order to pursue the public good he had to have power. To increase his power, he needed diminish that of others, and when it came to power, his allies (i.e. Yuliya Tymoshenko) seemed a lot like adversaries. Tymoshenko—whose public-mindedness is debated—encountered the same dilemma; she needed to undermine Yushchenko to preserve her prerogatives. Thus it is the case that the publicly-minded, almost as much as selfish people find themselves confronted with the need to acquire power.

The problem of power is important especially where it intersects with the problem of institutional design. The institutional design literature assumes that institutions channel power, and that the goal in designing institutions is to promote and protect democracy. In many countries, Ukraine included, the opposite of both these propositions is just as likely to be true. People designing institutions are often concerned with maximizing their own power, not necessarily building democracy. Or rather, in designing democracy, they seek to do so in ways that maximize their own likelihood for success in competitive politics. The problem is not unique to new democracies, as the example of drawing US congressional districts demonstrates. Precisely because institutions define who has power and what “counts” as power, those with power seek to enact institutions that preserve and extend, rather than limit, their power. Therefore, power shapes institutions as much as institutions shape power.

In this version of political science, the theoretical question is “what determines who wins in the contest for power,” and the policy question is “what means will help the side that I prefer triumph?” In this Machiavellian perspective, the “real” political scientists are not the academics, but rather the competitors for power and the political technologists and strategists they employ.

In the “consolidated democracies” it seems that the overall institutional framework—formal and informal—manages to channel efforts at private gain within the existing institutional framework, rather than at its expense. In Ukraine, the opposite is the case. Twice in fifteen years, autocrats have been able to subvert nascent democratic institutions, and street protests have been necessary and sufficient to determine who would be president and to force revision of the constitution. This lack of institutionalization deprives politics of the regularized interactions on which positivist political science depends. Ukraine’s relatively de-institutionalized power politics resembles international relations as much as the domestic politics of the advanced industrial states, where comparative politics has been most successful.

Does the role of power in Ukrainian politics mean that political science is irrelevant? Not at all. As a long line of work attests, the problem of power complicates the project of applying political science to public policy but does not reduce its importance. The literature on institutional design is a case in point. The challenge, as shown in the Federalist Papers, is not to design perfect institutions for a perfect society, but rather to design institutions which function well despite the problems of power and interest described above. The separation of powers among distinct parts of government is designed largely to make ambition counteract ambition, so that the result is acceptable, if not perfect. Applying political science to these problems is likely to be superior to applying untested hunches.

With Ukraine once again in a post-revolutionary situation, Ukrainian elites and citizens, backed by western elites and academics, profess the goal of building a European-style democracy in Ukraine. It is not enough to ask what has worked in the well-institutionalized free-market democracies to the west. It is also necessary to ask how to get to a position of deeply institutionalized democracy from the de-institutionalized power politics, which currently characterize Ukraine. This is a problem to which political scientists and politicians alike need to pay more attention.

Paul J. D’Anieri is a Provost and the Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of California, Riverside. He can be reached at paul.danieri@ucr.edu.



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  • 1.A preliminary version of this paper was presented at the 19th World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities, New York, April 2014. The author is grateful to the participants in that discussion and to two anonymous reviewers for their comments, and to the journal editors.
  • 2.In this context “North America” is really shorthand for “Canada and the United States.” Those two countries have produced far more scholarship on Ukraine than Mexico or any of the Caribbean countries.
  • 3.The multinational character of our discipline is in clear evidence every spring at the annual meeting of the Association for National Studies, and that conference’s organizers deserve credit for ensuring that it is far more inclusive than most academic conferences in North America.



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