"Why Isn't Ukraine Authoritarian?" Asks Nataliya Kibita

July 11, 2019
gathering in public

Picture of Nataliya KibitaWhy are Ukrainians prone to revolt?

Why, unlike Russia and other post-Soviet states, has Ukraine been able to avoid authoritarianism?

These are the questions at the root of Nataliya Kibita’s current research. A HURI Research Fellow in Ukrainian Studies during the Spring 2019 term, Kibita studies institutional change and continuity. More specifically, her project analyses the origins of regionalism, weak presidential power, and consensus-seeking politics in Ukraine. Her hypothesis is that these political tendencies in post-Soviet Ukraine are a legacy of the Soviet political system.

Here, she answers a few questions to explain how the power dynamics within the Soviet Union had a lasting impact on Ukraine's political climate.

HURI: Why did you choose this topic?

Kibita: I became interested in institutional change in Ukraine after the Euromaidan in 2013.

I was puzzled as to why Ukraine resists authoritarianism. There were two components to look at: the institutional setup in which political elites operated and society. I decided to look at the institutional setup. Society played a role, but you cannot boil it down to society or to a certain ‘democratic tradition.’ There are systemic state mechanisms that support this resistance.

For my PhD I studied Khrushchev’s decentralization reforms. To me, there was a connection to be explored, a connection between the Soviet institutional legacy and post-Soviet developments in Ukraine.

HURI: This connection, then, is why you focus on institutional continuity, not necessarily institutional change?

Kibita: Yes. I was puzzled by the fact that political scientists who study post-Soviet Ukraine generally start their analysis with 1991, or '89 at the earliest. Increasingly more credit is paid to the factor of Soviet legacy in Ukrainian politics, but the ‘Soviet legacy’ is rarely explained clearly. Based on my knowledge of the Soviet administrative system in Ukraine, there was clear institutional continuity. That continuity influenced how post-Soviet Ukraine developed, certainly during the first few years. There was also institutional change with the fall of the Soviet state ,but I was interested specifically in the institutional continuity. The way I see it, the institutional inertia dictated how institutions did change in Ukraine after 1991.

Kibita quoteHURI: You mention in the summary for your April 18 talk that “Russian President Boris Yeltsin proved more successful than his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kravchuk, to secure a super-presidential constitutional framework, thus laying the foundations for Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism.” What do we know about the intentions/ goals of the political leadership at the time? Did Kravchuk want and attempt to establish a similar power structure to Yeltsin’s, or were his ambitions different? Put another way, perhaps, what were the indications that Ukraine in 1992 “looked like a Soviet republic that was at least as predisposed to strong presidential power as Russia”?

Kibita: Kravchuk had tendencies toward authoritarianism, yes. Every single Ukrainian president attempted to establish an authoritarian system, but all failed. Russian President Boris Yeltsin succeeded. There are authors who explore this idea in detail, so I won’t spend time on it here. Suffice it to say that Kravchuk tried to establish strong, centralized power; he tried to impose the power of the executive over the legislative in Ukraine—so the power of the president over the parliament—which didn't work. And Kravchuk tried to establish presidential power directly over the regions. This didn’t work either.

As for Ukraine’s predisposition to strong presidential power, this is the view that dominates the existing literature on Ukraine’s first post-Soviet years. I don’t share this opinion. My research shows that by the time the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Ukraine was not predisposed to strong presidential power. On the contrary, it was set for strong regionalism, a weak presidency, and consensus-seeking politics.

structure of ukrssr government

HURI: Are there any comparisons (or contrasts) to be drawn between Ukraine and other post-Soviet states in their political trajectories? Or are they a different case altogether?

Kibita: Comparison with other post-Soviet states would be a different study. But I would say that Ukraine is a separate case.

On the surface, Ukraine was not distinct from any other republic in the sense that Moscow controlled all first party secretaries and all obkomy (oblast committees) in the republics. Where Ukrainian particularity comes in is in its economic weight, in the diversity and regionalization of the Ukrainian economy, and in the connection between economic and political regionalism, which led to the political marginalization of Western Ukraine even during the Soviet period.

I would say that the particularity of Ukraine’s politics began to form in 1954 when Khrushchev gradually began to decentralize economic administration. In 1954, he allowed for the formation of two industrial ministries in Ukraine, of ferrous metallurgy in Dnipropetrovsk and the ministry of coal in Donetsk. These two eastern Ukrainian cities secured direct communication with the respective all-Union ministries in Moscow.

collectivization and industrialization posterThe Radnarhosp (or Sovnarkhoz in Russian) reform of 1957 elevated the economic role of all republican governments in the Soviet Union. However, in Ukraine, this reform also implemented new regionalization which allowed for the formation of regional party-state coalitions. The number of these coalitions was higher in Ukraine than in any other republic except Russia. More importantly, it is the way Ukraine was divided into economic regions that defined Ukraine’s political landscape for years to come.

HURI: So did the economic units align with the political units?

Kibita: Yes, but not everywhere in Ukraine. And this formed the particularity of the Ukrainian political landscape at the time. In Ukraine some oblasts formed separate economic regions with separate regional economic councils (radnarhospy): Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia and Odesa. But other oblasts did not form separate economic regions. For example, the oblast of Ternopil was part of the Lviv radnarhosp. The Lviv radnarhosp comprised four oblasts. So in Eastern Ukraine, you would get one radnarhosp per oblast. In Western Ukraine and Central Ukraine, one radnarhosp managed the industry of several oblasts. Economically it was sensible, but administratively, especially politically, and especially in long run, (which of course nobody thought about back then), probably not.

HURI: Because oblasts like Donetsk would have more control over its own economy than those that were sharing radnarhospi?

Kibita: Yes, correct. The party committee (obkom) of some oblasts could control their own economy. And in other oblasts, like Sumy, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv, Ternopil, or Rivne, the party committee had less control over their own economy.

When a single oblast formed one economic region with its own economic council, or radnarhosp, local party functionaries and industrial managers created regional party-state coalitions. In Western Ukraine, these coalitions would be formed only in the oblasts that hosted a radnarhosp. For example, the Lviv radnarhosp managed the industry of four oblasts, but only the Lviv obkom had a tight connection with the Lviv economic administration because the radnarhosp was hosted there. This setup had a lasting political effect, as it allowed for the fragmentation of the CPU and the marginalization of Western Ukraine on the basis of economic rationale.

HURI: Do you think your research points to the potential benefits of regionalism and diversity for democracy? Or are the effects of Moscow’s political and economic policies a negative factor for Ukrainian society and statehood?

Kibita:  My research shows that political and economic regionalism were institutionalized during the Soviet period. So, if we consider that regionalism is an important factor that prevents Ukraine from becoming an authoritarian state, the institutionalization of regionalism during Soviet times seems like a positive legacy.

On the other hand, regionalism today gets in the way of a strong state.

The way I see it, the problem is not even in the strength of regionalism per se. The problem is an inaccurate view of the very institutional tissue of the Ukrainian state which motivated the Ukrainian presidents to mimic the Russian model of samoderzhavie, where power is imposed from the top. Their failures proved that this model does not work in Ukraine. In order to build a strong—not to be confused with authoritarian—centralized power, Ukrainian presidents should focus their energy on inducing demand for strong centralized government from the regions. In other words, the regions have to desire a unified, organized power, and they have to have trust that the Ukrainian president and the government would consider the interests of all regions, or at least allow the regions to defend their interests fairly in Kyiv.

HURI: Have you come across anything in your research that surprised you or that you found particularly interesting?

Kibita: Although I knew that the Soviet Ukrainian leadership was institutionally weak and the CPU fragmented, I was surprised at how strongly the archives provided confirmation of this idea.

The main thing I've seen from the documents was how the Ukrainian leadership tried to prove its usefulness to the Moscow leadership and to the regions. From 1922, Moscow had established several channels that connected the Ukrainian regions, some more than others, to the all-Union agencies. Strictly speaking, the Ukrainian administrative center was an artificial link in the Soviet power vertical. The Ukrainian Soviet republican leadership was well aware of its administrative value and on many occasions tried to consolidate its authority not by ‘begging for power from Moscow’ but by aligning interests with the regions and trying to defend the interests of the regions in Moscow.

HURI: What kind of documents were you looking at?

verkhovna rada pre 1990Kibita: Mainly archival materials from Ukrainian and Russian archives: Shorthand record reports, letters, statistics, various sorts of documents that show the power games between the regions, the Ukrainian leadership, and the Soviet leadership in Moscow.

HURI: Any thoughts on how Ukraine will continue to develop?

Kibita: Of course, it is impossible to predict. But theoretically, I think Ukraine will probably decentralize a bit more before it reintegrates as a strong, centralized state.

This process of, let’s say, an institutional renaissance could be conducted from Kyiv. Ukraine does not have to go to the point where each region turns into a fiefdom, but the demand for strong power has to come from the regions, as a result of a dialogue between the center and the regions. I haven’t studied the details of the latest decentralization reform and its progress, but hopefully it leads to a strong Ukrainian state.

HURI: Anything else we should know?

Kibita: I’m very grateful to HURI. During my fellowship, I met a lot of very nice, very intelligent people who challenged my arguments and findings. HURI is one of few centers in the world that provides such a stimulating environment. I was privileged to speak to such “titans” as Roman Szporluk, Lubomyr Hajda, and Serhii Plokhii. I can't even begin to thank Professor Plokhii for our discussions of Soviet Ukrainian politics. Other historians, as well; I met professors from the Davis Center: Terry Martin, Tim Colton. I was able to attend economic courses. And, of course, one doesn’t even need to mention the excellent libraries.

nataliya kibitaNataliya Kibita is a 2018-2019 HURI Research Fellow in Ukrainian Studies. Before joining the London School of Economics and Political Science in September 2015, she taught Soviet history at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on Ukrainian political and economic history in the twentieth century. In 2013, Kibita published Soviet Economic Management under Khrushchev: The Sovnarkhoz Reform (London, Routledge). Kibita received her Ph.D. from the University of Geneva in 2008, her MA in European Studies from the European Institute of the University of Geneva in 2001 and her BA from the National University ‘Ostroh Academy’ in Ukraine in 1999.