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Breaking Out of the Prison State: Ukraine’s Uncivil War

7:43 AM, Feb 10, 2014 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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There is a joke in Ukraine these days that says “totalitarian states now assume a national character that is consistent with the past profession of their dictators. In Belarus, a former collective farm director (Aleksandr Lukashenko) has turned the country into what appears to be one big kolkhoz (the Soviet name for a large agricultural collective). In Russia, a former KGB officer (Vladimir Putin) has converted the nation into a massive police state. And now in Ukraine, a former convict (Viktor Yanukovych) is trying to make the country into one, giant prison.”

The desire by the Ukrainian people to break free of one of the most corrupt and incompetent governments in Eastern Europe is what has precipitated—as well as sustained—a revolution that since November has seen tens of thousands of people take to the streets in cities throughout the country. These are more than just people wanting to be free and to have their voices heard. It is a population largely clamoring to rid themselves of a criminal state apparatus that wants to imprison them all inside of a broken economy that keeps them all poor while a handful of billionaires in power are living the good life.

The superficial, CNN version that is consistently played out in most western media outlets is that this revolt is the Ukrainian-speaking west against a Russian-speaking eastern region of the country. This conveys the image of another Serb vs. Croat-style ethnic conflict, which is not at all the nature of the Ukrainian uprising.

The struggle on the streets of Ukraine’s cities has its roots in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution. This was a popular uprising, but at the heart of the conflict was a large number of millionaires who supported then-presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko over the current president, Yanukovych, and the latter’s handful of billionaire cronies. Even a decade ago many Ukrainians referred to him by his pejorative nickname “Bandukovych” to signify that he and his political allies were looked upon as a pack of bandits.

“What the pro-Yushchenko Orange Revolutionaries were trying to prevent was having their businesses destroyed by this handful of criminal syndicate oligarchs aligned with Yanukovych. These oligarchs wanted total control of the economy,” explained a western diplomat one day as we met in one of Kiev’s western-style eateries last year. “But all the Orange Revolution did was postpone this scenario. Five years later—in 2010—Yanukovych finally captured the presidency and now here we are.”

The damage—more like the demolition—done to Ukraine’s economy since Yanukovych took office is hard to overestimate. Writing in the English-language Moscow Times, Russian political analyst Gregory Bovt put the matter into perspective when he pointed out that Ukraine’s GDP “is 84 percent of its size in 1992.” There is only one other country in the world with an economy that much smaller than what it had 20 years ago: Somalia.

Walking down the street here in the capital, you see all the signs of a broken economy barely functioning except to service a select few. Every open space it seems is plastered with advertising—much of it pointless. Says a Russian colleague. “It is not really supposed to generate more sales of a given product or service. Plus there are kickbacks on top of kickbacks with taxes on top of taxes in the advertising business so everyone gets paid off in the end.”

Then there are the businesses that inhabit the prime real estate in the center of the city. On any given street you will see a bank, and then a pharmacy, then another bank, then a shop that sells expensive Swiss watches, then another bank, then a Ferrari auto dealership, then another bank and so on. “More banks than there are stray dogs,” said a Ukrainian friend last year as we drove through the area that the protest camp now occupies. All in all, an inordinate amount of storefront space exists to either launder money or provide luxury goods to the 5 percent of the population that is doing most of the laundering—just before they jet off to their getaway homes in Switzerland, Austria, and the United Kingdom.

During a meeting a few months ago in Kiev, a Ukrainian colleague who does a great deal of business with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) told me, “the Chinese like doing deals with Ukraine. It has a corrupt, criminal government compounded with fantastic levels of corruption and the ability at will to brutally and mercilessly bring the full power of the secret services and riot police down on the population. This is just like PRC—and very similar to the African nations that the Chinese are used to dealing with.”

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