The Ukraine that emerged as an independent nation from the rubble of the Soviet empire was riven with problems. Its economy was a shambles and would continue on a downward slide until the early 2000s. Its political structure, left over from Soviet times, was only partially reformed and had been built, moreover, to rule a union republic rather than an independent nation.
Its population was ethnically mixed but with a strong dominance of Ukrainians, who made up 73 per cent of the people. Russians constituted a significant minority of 22 per cent, followed by people identifying as Jews, Belarusians and Moldavians, all making up just under one in a hundred. Other nationalities of the Soviet empire, from Bulgarians and Poles to Azeri, Koreans, Germans, Kyrgyz and Lithuanians, made up the remaining 3 per cent.
Regional differences in political outlook were strong. Although all regions voted in favour of separating from the Soviet Union in the December 1991 referendum, some were more enthusiastic than others. In Lviv, in the west of the country, 95 per cent of the people voted and 97 per cent of them approved the declaration of independence, which had been made in late August in response to the coup attempt in Moscow. In Crimea, an ethnically strongly Russian region at the other extreme, only 68 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls, with 54 per cent of them voting in favour.
Donetsk, an industrial region in the east of the country with strong economic ties to Russia, stood somewhat between these extremes. There, 77 per cent registered their vote and 84 per cent of those people voted for independence.
With the partial exception of the three Baltic republics, all post-Soviet nations have struggled with three interrelated crises: a crisis of democracy, an economic crisis and corruption. Outside the three Baltic outliers (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), the relatively well-performing Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are all resource-exporting economies. Everybody else is struggling.
In terms of wealth per person (measured by GDP per capita), Russia is about at the level of China (US$10,500), while even the rich Baltic countries are nowhere near the United States (US$63,500) or Australia (US$51,800).
The comparative poverty of the region is partly a legacy of the Soviet economy’s poor performance, and partly a hangover from the economic catastrophe of the 1990s. In Ukraine, agriculture continued to be run by the disastrously unproductive collective and state farms until 2000. Other economic reforms were also slow in coming.
Meanwhile, the unravelling of the integrated Soviet imperial economy, the economic burden of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, ageing and inefficient equipment, and dependence on Russian oil and gas were problematic legacies.
Moreover, Ukraine’s state apparatus had controlled no more than 5 per cent of Ukraine’s GDP before 1990 (the rest was under the direct control of Moscow). Officials thus “lacked the experience necessary to take quick and effective control” of the economy, as the writer Marco Bojcun puts it. The quick expansion of the share of the economy controlled by Ukraine’s officials — reaching 40 per cent on the eve of independence — only added to the problems.
Together, these issues combined to create a disaster: between 1991 and 1996, Ukraine’s economy contracted every year by at least 10 per cent and as much as 23 per cent. Overall, it had contracted to 43 per cent of its 1990 level by 1996 — a decline worse than the United States experienced during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The main reason nobody starved after 1991 was similar to Russia’s: the existence of private gardening, a legacy of the Soviet period. “The overwhelming majority of workers have out of town kitchen gardens,” wrote a worker from the Dnipro region in 1996. These were “little patches of land given them by the factory management under an agreement with the agricultural authorities… People work five days in the factories and two days on their plots.” According to official statistics, by 1996 some 80–95 per cent of fruit, vegetables and potatoes came from such plots. Even a quarter of all livestock were raised in private gardens.
Ukraine’s economy has not recovered nearly as much as that of resource-rich Russia, and its economic growth has stagnated since 2009. Russia’s war by proxy in Donbas since 2014 again stunted economic growth: between 2013 and 2015, Ukraine’s GDP halved.
The current war will have catastrophic consequences for this overall picture. In early 2022, the World Bank predicted a contraction of the economy by 45 per cent. In the same year, 47 per cent of surveyed Ukrainians reported that they did not have “enough money even for food” or had money sufficient “only for the most basic items.”
Post-Soviet countries are not only poor, they are also among the world’s most corrupt. Among European countries, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are all known as deeply corrupt societies. Of the 336 politicians whose secret offshore financial accounts were leaked in the “Pandora Papers” of 2021, thirty-eight came from Ukraine, among them president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This was the largest number of any country in the world. Russia’s figure was nineteen.
Over time, however, Ukraine has improved its record. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a higher score means less corruption. Ukraine initially improved significantly after 2004. While this progress was undone after a few years, improvement has been steady since 2009. Meanwhile, Russia has stagnated since 2012 and is classified today as more corrupt than its neighbour.
Corruption and economic crisis do little to embed democracy. Maybe unsurprisingly, then, the majority of the societies that succeeded the Soviet Union are ruled by authoritarian regimes. (Nine out of fifteen of them, or 60 per cent, according to the 2021 classification by Freedom House, an organisation that measures democratic performance.) Only the three Baltic states, which are members of both NATO and the European Union, are classified as consolidated democracies. Three others, Ukraine among them, are hybrid regimes, where authoritarian elements compete with democratic ones.
Within this general context, Ukraine is doing relatively well. Between 2017 and 2022 it was classified as “partly free” by Freedom House, its score oscillating between 60 and 62 on a scale out of 100, where the higher number indicates a higher level of civic and political liberty. Such numbers do not indicate that Ukraine is a beacon of democracy, however, either in the region (where Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia stand out as the freest countries, with scores of between 89 and 90) or around the world (the troubled United States scored 83 in 2021, while Australia stood at 97).
But Ukraine contrasts positively with Russia, which has been categorised as “not free” with a score of 20, falling to 19 in 2022. And Vladimir Putin’s state, in turn, still compares favourably with other dictatorships in the region, which are even more repressive: Belarus with 11 and Tajikistan with 8. For comparison, China scored 9 in 2021 and North Korea 3.
To a significant extent, the predominance of authoritarian regimes in the post-Soviet space is a Soviet legacy. “In all parts of the former Soviet empire,” write two legal scholars who studied this problem in detail, “the socialist party-state structure left a shared legacy of an executive-dominated state.” Change depended on whether a postcolonial or neocolonial mindset won the day.
In other words: did people want to stay in the Russian orbit or not? If not, the obvious choice was an orientation towards Europe, which came with mixed constitutions stressing checks and balances, weakening the executive; if yes, the constitution would be modelled much more closely on Russia’s “crown presidentialism,” further entrenching the centrality of the executive. In Ukraine, the former tendency won out, but not without political struggles.
One rather basic aspect of democracy is that governments are changed peacefully by elections. Ukraine is doing quite well in this regard, particularly if compared with its two autocratic neighbours. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994; in Russia, Putin since 1999. Ukraine, meanwhile, has seen seven presidencies since 1991: of Leonid Kravchuk (1991–94), Leonid Kuchma (1994–2005), Viktor Yushchenko (2005–10), Viktor Yanukovych (2010–14), Oleksandr Turchynov (2014), Petro Poroshenko (2014–19) and now Volodymyr Zelenskyy (since 2019).
The majority of these presidents were elected to office and left when they lost elections or decided not to contest them. Two were removed through revolutions, one peaceful (the Orange Revolution of 2004–05), one violent (the Revolution of Dignity, or Euromaidan, of 2013–14). But both revolutions resulted in elected governments again, not the imposition of revolutionary dictatorships.
Ukraine’s presidents ruled in competition with parliament, at first the one elected under Soviet conditions in 1990, then, since 1994, a post-Soviet one. This competition was formalised in the 1996 constitution, which put the directly elected president next to a one-chamber parliament that limited presidential powers to a much larger extent than in Russia.
Its unusually strong parliament became an issue because of the fragmented party system, however. First, there were too many parties; second, the existing parties were not based around major ideological positions or clearly elaborated political philosophies; third, there were many socially influential groups competing for power. As one observer puts it, this system was based “not on ideological factors, but on the competition of financial and industrial groups and regional elites” interested “in dispersing power in order to control at least a small segment of it.” The result was “political instability.”
Ukraine’s political system, then, constituted something of a unique case, both within the post-Soviet space and in the world at large. Its huge number of parties — more than 120 were officially registered in 2002 — were often internally divided as well. In the words of one observer, this fragmentation was “unprecedented for a modern democratic republic.” For another, it “hindered democratisation” by making it “difficult for the population to orient itself politically.” But the diversity also made it more difficult for would-be autocrats and their networks of clients to consolidate power.
The same can be said for the much-quoted regional fragmentation of Ukraine. On the one hand, regionalism has defined voting behaviour and hence fragmented the political system. In both parliamentary and presidential elections until 2019, voters in the more Russian and Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine and Crimea voted for one set of parties, while those in the more Ukrainian-speaking western Ukraine preferred a different set. “No party managed to elect candidates across Ukraine,” writes political scientist Paul D’Anieri. Presidential elections show a similar regional pattern.
At their extreme, regional divisions can define conflict lines within Ukraine, including the threat of secessionism and ethno-political conflict. On the other hand, regional identities and political networks also help balance power within the broader political system and prevent any one group of elites from monopolising power. Ukraine’s regional, cultural, religious and economic diversity can be seen as an asset as much as a liability. For historian Serhii Plokhy, it is “one of the main reasons for Ukraine’s success as a democracy.”
Of the three main regional power groups, one is based in Kharkiv in the northeast; the second in the industrial heartland around Donetsk in the east; and the third in Dnipro in central Ukraine, the heart of the Soviet Union’s defence and space industries. These were already part of the political structure of late Soviet times, and they led to a specific form of “patronal democracy” in which clans competed for political power within a republican set-up.
At the same time, winners often tried to replace this competitive structure with a single hierarchy of power. The first attempt came under Leonid Kuchma, who built a “patronal autocracy,” but the Orange Revolution of 2004 destroyed this system and reverted to dual competition between president and parliament on the one hand and multiple power networks on the other.
Yanukovych then tried again, and successfully neutralised competing clans — until ordinary citizens intervened to stop this usurpation of power. The 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity not only undid Yanukovych’s dictatorial slide but also led to an election labelled by two experts as “probably the fairest one in the country’s history.” This transformation of the political system was one-sided, however: while it did constitute a redemocratisation, it didn’t eliminate regional and patronal politics.
It was only with Zelenskyy’s election in 2019 that things began to change in this regard. Zelenskyy was “no chief patron and [had] no patronal pyramid” but instead gathered strong support from the new middle and creative classes, campaigning on an anti-corruption platform. He mostly spoke Russian during his campaign, which helped overcome regional differences between Russian speakers in the east and Ukrainian speakers in the west. He achieved what many thought impossible: his election was the first in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history where voting did not follow regional patterns. •
This is an edited extract from Russia’s War Against Ukraine: The Whole Story, published this month by Melbourne University Press.