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Separated At Birth: Ukraine's And Russia's Divergent Paths

Common past. Different futures?
Common past. Different futures?

Tanks shell a parliament. Voters flock to the polls. One leader is strengthened. Another is ousted. A powerful executive is established under the aegis of martial law. A defeated president peacefully transfers power to his successor.

Two days in two countries more than two decades ago. Two days, nine months apart, that set Russia and Ukraine on the radically different trajectories that culminated in the conflict we are witnessing today.

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict drags on, as we watch with trepidation as the Minsk-2 cease-fire crumbles, as Mariupol and maybe Kharkiv brace for separatist assaults, it's worth recalling how and why these two countries arrived at the place they are today.

The immediate cause of the current crisis, of course, is Russia's determination to prevent Ukraine from integrating with the West. But the underlying cause can be found in the divergent paths they took after 1991.

And those different courses are encapsulated in two fateful days in the early formative years after the Soviet breakup.

Russia's Original Sin

The first day is October 4, 1993. That's when Russian President Boris Yeltsin resolved his longstanding conflict with parliament by sending tanks and shelling it into submission.

At the time, it looked like a victory for Yeltsin's team of reformers over a retrograde and reactionary legislature. Supporters of Yeltsin called it one of those times when it is necessary to use illiberal means to achieve liberal ends. But in reality, it was post-Soviet Russia's original sin.

The shelling of the Russian parliament established the dangerous precedent that political disputes could be resolved by force. And in its wake, the Russian presidency turned into an unaccountable behemoth -- one that Vladimir Putin would ultimately use to the fullest.

The executive-heavy power vertical, the unaccountable superpresidency, and the decorative pocket parliament otherwise known as the State Duma were the direct result of the way the 1993 crisis was resolved. So is the fact that the rule of law in Russia is an illusion at best, consistently trumped by a much older principle: Might makes right.

"For the last 20 years, we've continued to use the same methods," Sergei Filatov, Yeltsin's chief of staff at the time of the crisis, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in October 2013, on the 20th anniversary of the shelling.

"We survived that time and we should have learned something from it, but unfortunately we didn't learn anything. We all had that Soviet, imperial mentality, where strength will always better solve the problem, as opposed to negotiations and compromise. If we're ever going to become a democratic society, we need to change our methods of managing the country and the methods of interaction among the authorities."

The Ukrainian Alternative

Fast-forward to the following summer -- July 10, 1994 -- in Ukraine.

On that sweltering summer day, in the second round of Ukraine's first post-Soviet election, voters rejected incumbent President Leonid Kravchuk and elected his challenger, Leonid Kuchma.

And Kravchuk did something remarkable for the former Soviet Union. He stepped down without incident and allowed Kuchma to take power.

The election of 1994 came in the wake of a political crisis in Ukraine that was similar to the one Yeltsin had faced in Russia.

The country was in the midst of an economic collapse and a debilitating series of coal-miners' strikes. Kravchuk was locked in a bitter dispute with the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. But in contrast to Russia, the crisis in Ukraine was resolved peacefully with an agreement to hold early presidential and parliamentary elections.

Initially the conventional wisdom about the 1994 election was that it was a victory for Moscow because Kuchma, who hailed from eastern Ukraine, was friendlier to Russia than Kravchuk.

But the precedent that was set by a peaceful transfer of power proved to be more important and more enduring.

It's worth noting that in the five presidential elections Ukraine has held since independence, the incumbent or the incumbent's handpicked successor has lost three times. Only one incumbent, Kuchma in 1999, won reelection.

By contrast, in Russia, the incumbent or the incumbent's chosen successor has won each of the five presidential elections since the Soviet Union broke up. Machinations to subvert and manipulate the democratic process -- like Yeltsin handing the Kremlin to Putin with his New Year's Eve resignation in 1999 or the "casting" move Putin and Dmitry Medvedev pulled off in 2011-12 -- have been the norm.

A Study In Contrasts

Not only have Ukraine's elections always been more competitive than Russia's; its political and economic elite has always been more pluralistic.

On the most recent Power Vertical Podcast, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, noted that "the taming of the elite in Russia as opposed to Ukraine" was a key factor in determining the different paths the two countries followed since independence.

In Russia, "the state stepped in and obliterated the political power of the oligarchs in the early 2000s and set Putin up as the center of the state system. All of them agreed to have a strongman in charge," Guillory said. "We didn't have this in Ukraine. Nobody came out on top in Ukrainian elite politics. It was always a contest among various oligarchs based in various parts of the country."

It was the shelling of the Russian parliament in 1993 and its political aftermath that set the stage for Putin's authoritarian rule. "The creation of a very strong presidency is what allowed all this to happen," Guillory said.

And perhaps most importantly, from the 1994 election and onward, Ukraine's civil society has always been stronger and more independent than its Russian counterpart.

In Ukraine, independent civic groups and NGOs thrived, flourished, and multiplied and ultimately became a force to be reckoned with in the country's politics.

In Russia, they were alternatively marginalized, co-opted, and manipulated by the authorities, or harassed out of existence. They have been called a fifth column and branded as foreign agents.

Ultimately, Ukraine's civil society became the Third Force as Kyiv's and Moscow's political paths diverged and the Kremlin schemed and battled to keep its neighbor in its political orbit.

Irreconcilable Differences

So it is fair to say that since the Soviet collapse, Ukraine has progressively become more democratic. Russia, less so.

But Ukraine's development since 1991 has been far from perfect. Corruption was rampant and oligarchs ruled. But by the summer of 2013, Ukraine's increasingly confident civil society wanted something better. And the first step toward something better was Ukraine signing an association agreement with the European Union.

"If you are a student or a small business owner in Ukraine, you understand Europe in the following way: Europe is part of our history, and Europe today means the European Union. And the European Union means bureaucratic predictability and the rule of law," Yale University historian Timothy Snyder said in a recent lecture.

Snyder added that the Euromaidan uprising was "a middle-class revolution" to move the country "from oligarchic pluralism to real pluralism."

What made this decisive was that top oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov and Ihor Kolomoysky calculated that they had a better chance of protecting their wealth in a European-style system than in a Ukraine that was essentially a colony of Russia.

And once that happened, the divergent paths that Ukraine and Russia had taken since 1991 became irreconcilable differences.

Writing in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Princeton University historian Stephen Kotkin notes that Ukraine is "a nation that is too big and independent for Russia to swallow up," while Russia "is a damaged yet still formidable great power whose rulers cannot be intimidated into allowing Ukraine to enter the Western orbit. Hence the standoff."

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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