Ukraine Shackled by Revolution and Oligarchs
Published: March 5, 2014 (Issue # 1800)
Many people see the Ukrainian uprising as a direct result of a sort of doubles match that paired ousted Presidents Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych against German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. Others suspect that Washington instigated the turmoil. But if we clear the haze surrounding the crisis, then suddenly we can see that the real root of the problem lies buried deep beneath the surface: an intricate web woven by Ukraine’s wealthiest business leaders.
It would be a mistake to think that Ukraine wants to repeat Russia’s accomplishments and Yanukovych sought to replicate Putin’s success as a powerful leader. Even though the two countries share a similar language and culture, their political systems are vastly different, especially when it comes to the part played by wealth businessmen in influencing politics.
By the late 2000s, the operative influence of billionaires on daily politics had almost completely vanished in Russia, mainly a result of measures taken by Putin. Clear examples of those measures include the 10-year imprisonment of Russia’s once most wealthy man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the banishment of one-time Kremlin powerbroker Boris Berezovsky into self-exile and apparent suicide in Britain. While Russian billionaires visibly controlled politics via “the Family” at the end of the Boris Yeltsin era, Putin systematically destroyed their influence by appointing siloviki, who have controlled Russia for the past decade.
In contrast with Russia, Ukraine has established a fairly unique political system after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. Similarly to Russia, several billionaires and their clans have emerged due to the unaccountable and fast privatization of former state assets under President Leonid Kuchma during the 1990s. Dominant clans from Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Kiev have appeared in metallurgy, banking, energy and other industries.
By the early 2000s, Kuchma’s presidential powers began to fade thanks to a status quo-based system that lacked reform. That is why the last few years of his regime are known in come circles as the Kuchma vapidity.
Enter an unexpected and interesting turn of events. In 2004, Ukrainian voters elected a president, Viktor Yushchenko, who was out of the reach of the clans’ influence. Yushchenko, with his independence, patriotism and radical anti-corruption and anti-Russian attitude, became a significant threat to the billionaires who controlled Ukrainian politics. Yushchenko’s supporters were mere businessmen from the western part of Ukraine: small fry compared to billionaires such as Rinat Akhmetov and Dmytro Firtash. This is exactly what proved to be Yushchenko’s undoing. He only had the support of the masses but barely any financial or political support from the ruling elite. That disadvantage proved to be quite costly in an oligarch-controlled nation such as Ukraine.
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