Could the true face of Putinisation in Ukraine be yet to appear, just when the concept appears to be on borrowed time?
Putinizatsiya is a popular label for what has happened to Ukraine over the last two years. Some call the system a modern feudalist system, but it is perhaps more accurate to describe it as clan-based. What most people can readily observe could be called rather Donbasisation, an enlargement in the scope of what took place in Donbas in the 1990’s, in terms of who from various friends and close relatives controls various businesses (and by what methods). Ukraine could as a result be lumbered with a cronyist economic environment that, without the element of meritocracy, will be doomed to lurch on inefficiently for years to come whilst the world outside continues to surge forward. It will be almost impossible to sensibly unravel should anyone in the future propose to do so.
Ukraine may not be a neo-Tsarist system as such, but the country continues to tiresomely follow Russia’s lead, for example the retrogressive education ‘reforms’, gleefully unwinding progress towards the Bologna process it entered a few years back, or the absurd commitment to follow Russia’s lead in abolishing daylight savings on the advice of ‘scientists’ (Muscovites now start work or school in the dark, a full two hours ahead of Kiev). Such backward measures can only pull Ukraine further away from the European sphere (the decision to delay the time change until after Euro 2012 is tacit acknowledgement of this).
But if the ‘new order’ really wants to go the whole hog and bring about true Putinisation, they have to take seriously that Yanukovych lacks Putin’s personal popularity. Nobody can seriously believe that the Party of Regions can stand on a United Russia-style ticket of ‘support President Yanukovych’ and attempts to plaster the President’s mug on billboards around the country have had a somewhat mixed reception. Can you really build a personality cult around Yanukovych? Stories of the President doing handstands and the like impress some people in this politically unsophisticated country, but the action man image may be difficult to cultivate.
Putin’s rise to power was never really about elections. He was appointed. So is Yanukovych less of a Putin and in fact more a Yeltsin, who will facilitate the rise of an appointed successor? As with Putin, the man himself may not be well-known currently and may not be of political stock at all. Look past Yatseniuk, Tigipko and Brezhnev-era fossils that currently occupy high office. The recent maneuverings in defence and security posts may yield the answers. Could it conceivably be, as it was in Russia, someone with security service connections? Will he also need to have real popularity? In any case Putin’s famed 'popularity' might not be as real as many assume.
The biggest stumbling block to the path to following this strategy may be events In Russia itself, where there are early signs that the wheels may finally be coming off the cart of Putinism, at least to the extent that some form of real opposition may have to be accommodated. The elections this year may well, in some way or other, be part of a shakedown in the Russian system. However, these people will not give up what they have gained easily. In Belarus for example, Lukashenka has been able to quell the hand-clapping protests against him despite many reports I’ve heard first hand that the locals no longer speak well of him.
Ukraine, even with its fair share of political apathy and debilitating pessimism, is different, even if the difference is more nuanced than substantial. It will have a shorter fuse than its CIS neighbours if faced with an undemocratic imposition. Notional support for a European future in Ukraine is still high, with countless young people still telling me philosophically that they still hope their country’s future eventually lies with Europe. And, as stated earlier, the inefficiency of the cronyist system will always leave it vulnerable to failure.
Ukraine now may become a fully authoritarian or 'unfree' regime, an imperfect but functioning democracy able to make friends, or a kind of European Venezuela, but if Putinism really is the model, and if events in Russia continue to suggest that Putinism is indeed now passé, Ukraine’s authoritarian masterplan may just need a rethink.