Reflecting on my 2021, and lessons for Ukraine: Part 2

Reflecting on my 2021, and lessons for Ukraine: Part 2

Part II

In continuation of the first part of my three-part essay series on Ukraine’s political development (if you haven’t read the first part already, I highly recommend that you do so before you continue with the second or third parts, as it will provide the needed context and make it easier to follow my line of argument), this essay aims to look at the challenges Ukraine faces in its reforms and state-building efforts, as well as how the lessons of the works summarised in Part I can be applied to this area.


Perhaps the greatest (domestic) issue Ukraine faces is the domination of the state by private interests and corruption. Relatedly, while Ukraine is a democracy, it is an electoral and not a liberal (or constitutional) democracy (it has also been described as a “hybrid” or “competitive authoritarian” system). What this means is that although citizens can vote a bad leader out of office, the system is not upheld by a mutual recognition by political forces of the need to adhere to certain liberal rules of the game. In liberal democracies, governments (generally) appoint civil servants on a meritocratic basis and abstain from persecuting the opposition. By contrast, in Ukraine the system is sustained by a balance of power between oligarchic groups, none of which is strong enough to completely dominate the others (though the Party of Regions and the Donetsk clan certainly tried).

The result is that each election is usually marked by a wave of political dismissals and appointments, as well as attempts to pressure the judiciary into prosecuting political opponents. In such a system, political parties cannot be understood in the traditional sense of the word as intermediaries between broader social groups and the state. Rather, they are political “machines” which are rooted more in illicit oligarchic funds and informal business-political networks than they are in ideology or popular participation.

While Ukraine has certainly made progress in the fight against corruption and state capture, it still has a long way to go, and many Ukrainians and Western partners feel that reform is proceeding at too slow a pace. Moreover, it is questionable to what extent a system can be called democratic when the only presidential candidates who can gain public attention must garner the support of oligarchs who dominate the domestic media environment, and when there are few (if any) restrictions on campaign finance or other regulations that would in liberal democracies make clear the division between the public and private spheres.

Lessons and Policy Recommendations

Certain key conclusions can be drawn at this point. Using Acemoglu and Robinson’s model of “Shackled” versus “Despotic” Leviathans, Ukraine appears to be somewhere between a “Despotic” and “Paper” (that is, simultaneously domineering and ineffective) Leviathan. This suggests that what Ukraine needs is a stronger society and state, albeit with greater emphasis on society. It might be tempting to focus on a stronger state before society, but while this has managed to produce a few liberal democracies today – such as Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – these countries developed in the way they did due to a variety of often external factors (i.e. persistent and existential military competition) which cannot be taken for granted in Ukraine. (VD: I began writing this essay in early November, but now it seems Russia’s current build-up on the border may well prove me wrong in this regard). Moreover, the cases above represent the exception rather than the rule when it comes to development models rooted in a powerful (and often authoritarian) state. In this context, recent and ongoing developments in Ukraine give cause for concern. In spite of the country’s current decentralisation, a large amount of power has been concentrated in President Zelensky’s hands. For instance, the recent “anti-oligarch” law provides only imperfect criteria for designating oligarchs and is therefore vulnerable to abuse, and responsibility for implementation of the law falls on the National Security and Defence Council (NSDC) of Ukraine, which answers directly to Zelensky. This case – and the broader trend of centralisation of power in the President’s Office – could make the state too powerful without a corresponding increase in societal power and should be monitored closely.

Nonetheless, it should still be said that a neoliberal reduction of the state is not the answer. There is not as great a danger of this as there was during the height of the Washington Consensus immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse, but policymakers will still on occasion suggest that the size of the Ukrainian state be reduced in order to close off opportunities for rent seeking (as fewer areas of the economy would come under the remit of the state). While this may be true in many areas – the public administration and state-owned enterprises certainly need pruning and reform – a strong state is still necessary for preventing excessive concentration of market power in the hands of oligarchs and curtailing the power of money in politics. It could be argued that this will only increase the discretionary power of officials and therefore enable corruption, but this logic can be taken too far. Ultimately, a strong state is indispensable for necessary public goods like defence, education, healthcare, and a well-functioning economy. Ukraine does not suffer from an excessively strong state as much as it does from a state dominated by powerful private interests, which is why I say it is closer to a “Paper” Leviathan than a “Despotic” one. There can be little doubt that state-building is an arduous process, and Ukraine is in the unenviable position of having to build not only a state, but also a nation, the rule of law, and democratic accountability simultaneously.

In combination with Fukuyama’s insights about the three pillars of liberal democracy, perhaps the best model for Ukraine is to focus on the rule of law through broad social mobilisation and to thereafter follow in the footsteps of the American development model. While the United States originally lacked state power, it was founded in the rule of law and democratic accountability, and gradually overcame clientelism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the Progressive Era through broad reform coalitions.

In light of this conclusion, top-down reform approaches, which are often favoured by Western partners, are unlikely to work. Democratic accountability is something which is conquered, not given, so a bottom-up approach which increases popular participation in politics is necessary.

The experience of young democracies outlined in Fukuyama and Rothstein’s works, however, should caution us to the fact that popular participation on its own is not enough to produce effective accountability and the rule of law. It might in fact produce a clientelistic political system, which risks inhibiting the transition to a liberal democratic system defined by party politics and programmatic agendas. Furthermore, while Ukrainian civil society is often described as strong and “vibrant”, it has proven itself more capable at unseating power than exercising it. Complementary steps are therefore needed.

A truly public sphere characterised by a civil society that can bridge divides, as well as political parties rooted in ideology and social movements (in contrast to an atomised society and political machines centred around individual leaders) will require a free media environment, the removal of constraints on civic associations, electoral and campaign finance reform, and investment into education. This will, of course, require action on the part of the state. However, rather than hoping that the state will take on the full responsibility of creating rule of law and an effective state bureaucracy by directly prosecuting corruption (not to mention doing all of this while respecting democratic norms), this indirect approach envisions the state providing societal forces with the conditions to organise themselves and to create pressure for change by removing barriers to public discourse and social mobilisation. An indirect approach is also less likely to provoke opposition from groups with a stake in the current system.

In addition, this process possesses a nation-building component: social actors will be much more inclined to cooperate if they consider themselves to be part of the same political community (nation), and while Ukraine has made large strides in this area (I would say we can direct much of our gratitude to Mr. Putin for that), more can be done. One idea that has been suggested elsewhere is to increase the number of university exchange programmes across the country, which will help Eastern Ukrainians expand their conception of “Ukraine” to include Western Ukraine, and vice versa for Western Ukrainians and Eastern Ukraine. All of this will help produce the kind of generalised trust and bridging social capital needed for the formation of broad and balanced reform coalitions.

Lastly, the creation of a political system centred around free media, an educated and cohesive public, ideological political parties, and programmatic agendas will not only allow citizens to have greater say, but can hopefully produce the kind of stability necessary for the rule of law. After all, if a party can be confident that it has broad electoral and financial support for its vision – rather than for the charisma of an individual leader – and that non-oligarchic media will allow it to disseminate that vision, then it will be harder for adversaries to persecute them by cutting them off from oligarchic finance or media, and the party itself will be less inclined to rig the rules in its favour when it is in power.

As has been outlined above, the cards are unfortunately stacked against Ukraine in many ways, and it remains to be seen whether the government will take advantage of the renewed sense of urgency occasioned by the threat of an intensified Russian invasion to push forward on reform. But Fukuyama posits that because of the growing interconnectedness of the world and the rapid spread of democratic ideas, countries caught in “vicious circles” may no longer have to wait for an exogenous turn of events to shift the state-society balance of power in the necessary direction. I think this argument contains a large grain of truth, and it should inspire Ukrainian societal actors to mobilise and bring about the kind of change that would make Ukraine a prosperous and free country.

I hope you have been enjoying this essay series so far. In the third and final part, I will be discussing the role of foreign actors and how the lessons drawn from the relevant works can be applied by Ukraine’s international partners in order to help it on its path to reform.