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"Dysfunctional" State to "Blackmail" State: Paradoxes of the Post-Soviet Transition in Ukraine

A talk by Mykola Riabchuk.

Richard Gunde Email RichardGunde

What is the future of Ukraine, a state that is neither democratic nor authoritarian? It is with this question that Mykola Riabchuk, one of Ukraine's leading progressive journalists, opened his talk presented on May 25 for the Center for European and Eurasian Studies and the Department of Slavic Studies, UCLA.

To answer this question, Riabchuk focused on three issues: (1) the so-called transition paradigm, which is often applied to post-socialist states and which Riabchuk believes should be questioned, (2) the nature of the Ukrainian political system, which Riabchuk described as "a blackmail state," and (3) the path likely to be taken by this blackmail state, which, in Riabchuk's words, "seems to be a very stable, not easily shaken."

The Importance of Ukraine

By virtue of its geographic position -- at the center of Europe, as Riabchuk described it -- and it large size (it is home to about 50 million inhabitants), Ukraine is crucial to the future of the region. It can be "either a source of stability or a source of all sorts of 'diseases.' As long as the country is not democratic the regime cannot be reliable, and the regime can thus succumb to arms trafficking, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and so on." In particular, Ukraine plays a pivotal role in the future of Russia. Citing the work of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Riabchuk argued that Russia can go two ways: it can assume a "new, national identity, or it can reestablish a sort of imperial identity and state. Ukraine is very important because it is a part of the Russian imperial identity. An independent Ukraine is a sort of guarantee that Russia will not become an empire again."

"A Country In Between"

 "Ukraine is a country," Riabchuk declared, "that is in between in all possible ways. . . . Adjectives such as semi-democracy, quasi-democracy, illiberal democracy explain this system: . . . a qualified democracy, an imperfect democracy." "Authoritarianism" is also applied to politics in Ukraine, Riabchuk noted, but "also with some adjectives which qualify authoritarianism as 'electoral,' as 'semi-authoritarianism, and so on. Again, you have imperfect authoritarianism in Ukraine."

Because of Ukraine's colonial and communst legacy, "it is difficult to change the country. . . . The point you come to largely depends on the point where you came from. . . . So if you departed from the Soviet Union you cannot easily jump to the level of France or Germany or even Slovenia." In 1991, the Ukrainian authorities who inherited power had "no vision of the future state, of nation-building." They "were a sort of territorial elite, which suddenly became the owners of a huge European state. And because they didn't have an ideology, they had to adopt an ideology from somewhere. They took over the ideology of their political rivals, the so-called Ukrainian national democrats."

There is nothing wrong with this "theft," Riabchuk stated, "if the authorities managed to complete the program" of democratization. But "they just adopted the rhetoric of democratization, the rhetoric of marketization, the rhetoric of European integration. . . . Rhetoric reigns supreme in this country." They had no interest in transforming the rhetoric into reality. The elite does not feel sufficiently strong "to compete in a really transparent political and economic system." Instead, they feel the need "to preserve all this murky old-boy relations inherited from the Soviet Union. So they are not friends of democracy."

Why, then, did they adopt this rhetoric? "They understand that they live in a world of so-called international liberal hegemony. . . . International liberal hegemony doesn't tolerate authoritarian regimes; it doesn't tolerate dictatorial regimes, especially in Europe." The authorities in Ukraine "do not want to be isolated and ostracized." In fact, they are "integrated into Europe on a personal level: On the level of bank accounts and real estate. They got accustomed to spending their holidays in Italy or Switzerland. . . . So there are a lot of reasons to maintain good relations with the West; not to irritate Westerns too much." Thus, they deploy this "pro-European, quasi-democratic rhetoric as a smokescreen."

A Blackmail State

At the same time, Ukraine's rulers cannot completely ignore Ukrainian society. They must somehow come to grips with it and control, or at least neutralize it, for their own survival. The result is what Keith Darden of Yale University has described as a blackmail state. Riabchuk explained that when the Soviet state collapsed, a power vacuum ensued. A new system did not appear immediately. Instead, a weak state emerged. "Many people perceived this as democracy --  which it was not. Eventually, post-Communist rulers discovered new ways" of ruling: the blackmail state.

The blackmail state, as Riabchuk described it, consists of three fundamental elements. First, "vice and corruption are tolerated by the authorities, and even encouraged by the authorities." The authorities feel that people who are corrupt are reliable because they can be blackmailed. In other words, it is easy to control them. Second, "corruption is tolerated, but at the same time it is very strictly supervised." Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union very strong institutions of surveillance and invented two new, powerful institutions: Tax Administration and Tax Police. "These institutions are stronger than the KGB was." Ukraine's regime of laws and regulations is extremely complex, making it virtually certain that almost everyone has in some way violated the law. The Ukraine state surveillance institutions are painstaking in ferreting out such violations of the law and recording them. These records "are not used as long as the subject is loyal. But any disloyalty leads to court procedures, and the subject is jailed or expelled from the country."

The third element of the blackmail state is "the selective application of the law. . . . Laws are not applied to regime loyalists, or are applied very mildly. But against opponents, they are applied in the harshest way possible."

This system "targets primarily people who are active in politics and business. Any businessman can be jailed. So no businessman can openly support an opposition party."

Possibilities for Change

While this blackmail state system appears to be stable, Riabchuk believes it can be changed. Ukraine has the preconditions or factors that make a fundamental political change possible. First, Riabchuk pointed out that Ukraine has a civil society. "It is not powerful, not developed, not vibrant, but still it exists." Ukrainian society "can articulate its demands and needs, and it can support democratic oppositional parties. . . . Ukraine has probably the strongest democratic opposition in the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian parliament is probably the only real parliament in the former Soviet Union," excluding the Baltic states, which were "never really sovietized."

Second, the ruling elite is not homogeneous. Riabchuk declared, "I am definitely against the demonization of the so-called oligarchs. There are many different oligarchs in Ukraine. . . . Only some of them are entirely parasitic." Some groups of oligarchs, or "clans" as Riabchuk termed them, "while not perfect" are involved in useful production. "Within ten years or so, oligarchs managed to privatize practically everything in Ukraine. So [today] they have much to lose. . . . There are clear trends that oligarchs want stability, they want a more transparent economy, they need more rule of law. . . . Thus there are signs that rather powerful economic forces in Ukraine are interested in political change."

Third, "international public opinion," or more specifically Western governments and nongovernmental organizations, "are in a position to press the Ukrainian authorities. "This couldn't be called interference in internal affairs; it could be called just a requirement to follow their own international obligations. Ukrainian authorities signed a lot of documents -- about human rights and so on -- which require action."

None of these factors alone, Riabchuk concluded, can cause change. "But I strongly believe that together, in cooperation, these factors can lead to very important change in Ukraine."

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Mykola Riabchuk is a research associate at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and a cofounder and coeditor of  Krytyka, a leading Ukrainian journal ( He is the author of five books, including a two-volume study on civil society and state-nation building in Ukraine (From 'Little Russia' to Ukraine [Vid Malorosiji do Ukrajiny: paradoksy zapizniloho nacijetvorennia], and Dilemmas of the Ukrainian Faustus [Dylemy ukrajins'koho Fausta: hromadians'ke suspil'stvo i rozbudova derzhavy], 2000), which was awarded the Ukrainian national "Book of the Year" prize. He has received the POLCUL Award for his contribution to Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation (1998).

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