Explaining Ukraine is a pain; it stays mainly just the same

Daniel W. Drezner
June 9
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko watches as soldiers hoist the Ukrainian national flag and presidential flag after the inauguration ceremony in Kiev, Ukraine, on June 6, 2014. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AP)

Twenty years ago this month, I was finishing up a year of living in Ukraine, teaching economics at the Donetsk Academy of Management (where, in case you were wondering, the “educational process” was suspended due to the recent unpleasantness). After eastern Ukraine blew up, I didn’t keep this fact a secret, but I didn’t exactly broadcast it either. Sure, among American foreign policy commentators, I’m pretty sure I’ve spent more time in eastern Ukraine than anyone else. But this was twenty years ago, when Ukraine’s currency looked like Monopoly money, only with larger denominations, and I didn’t want to trade in on a field experience from two decades ago and try to apply it to current events. I mean, things must have changed in a generation, right? Right?

And then I read Julia Ioffe’s depiction of the bureaucracy inside the one-building state that is the People’s Republic of Donetsk, and it was like a flashback to my year there, futilely trying to navigate the local bureaucracy. If Ioffe’s reporting is correct, then very little has changed in Ukrainian governance over the past two decades. And that’s a big, big problem for the alliance of western states that want to fortify Ukraine as a bulwark against Russian revanchism.

To understand why, consider the paragraph below, a diary entry from my year in Donetsk after being there for about six weeks:

There are two kinds of mafia in the Ukraine. The unofficial mafia runs the black market; they play by no rules. The official mafia are those with powerful connections and thus able to get sweetheart deals on privatization and other sorts of government activity. These people run the official market, and play by the law, except that these people are remarkable chummy with the lawmakers. [My student] and his family fall into the second group. The first tipoff is that his apartment door, if not bulletproof, would at least annoy any bullets that came its way. His parents’ apartment in Mariopol was very nicely furnished, with Western appliances (at least 3 color TVs, two VCRs, one JVC stereo, one electric fan, and a host of minor goods) and an actual closet which had stuff in it (I hadn’t realized until then that most places here didn’t have larders). In addition to this well-furnished apartment, his family owns his apartment in Donetsk, a dacha in Yalta, and five automobiles (one Nissan Sentra, some Ladas and Zhivulis).  The business is impressive; I saw a fax from a Czech concern interested in further trade. I asked him how his father got his money, and he told me it was from owning a plant which made picture tubes for Russian TVs. This puzzled me, as I was not aware that Ukraine had privatized any significant assets yet. I asked him how he bought the plant, and he gave me the a look which suggested that I wouldn’t like the real answer.

Has that much changed in Ukraine since that entry? I suppose the criminal mafias are a bit more sophisticated and what I called “the official mafia” are now rich enough to be respectable plutocrats… but that’s about it. Some of the other constants during my time there that haven’t changed much:

  1. As bad as things were in Russia, it seemed an oasis of stability compared to Ukraine.
  2. Regardless of whether a pro-Western or pro-Russian government was in power, the Ukrainian government was riddled with corruption.
  3. It’s the most energy-inefficient economy in Europe.

Westphalian sovereignty was gifted to Ukraine in 1991, and the country’s elites have been treating it pretty cavalierly for more than two decades. Indeed, in some ways, it’s an exemplar of what Robert Jackson described as “juridical sovereignty“.

Now it’s possible that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its months-long looming threat over eastern Ukraine might actually trigger some actual state-building in Ukraine. It certainly seems like the crisis is de-escalating after Petro Poroshenko’s convincing electoral victory. His forceful inaugural address suggests some promise. But as Sarah Topol pointed out last month in Politico Magazine, Poroshenko is a creature of the very structure that’s described above. And even if he and the rest of the government are committed to real reform, they’re fighting uphill against twenty years of embedded corruption.

It makes a great deal of sense to aid Ukraine in statebuilding. But at best, this is going to be a slow-motion process, and at worst, it will be a futile replay of the Orange Revolution. Both the United States and European Union had better start preaching patience now.

Developing… very, very slowly.

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