It’s now two years since the start of the Maidan protests in Ukraine, and the country remains in the grip of a severe crisis. The war in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces that began in April 2014, after groups of Russian-backed paramilitaries seized numerous police stations and town halls throughout the region, has so far claimed almost 8,000 lives and displaced as many as 1.4 million people. For now, a lasting peace is proving elusive: beyond the military standoff between the “People’s Republics” and the Ukrainian army lies a political impasse over Ukraine’s constitution. The “separatists,” and behind them Russia, insist on “federalization” — that is, the granting of nearly independent status to the region — which Kyiv argues is an unacceptable surrender of its sovereignty. All this has been accompanied by a deepening economic downturn. Ukraine’s already shrinking GDP has now contracted by almost a quarter since 2012, and the country’s debt stands at more than $70 billion, though Kyiv negotiated a partial write-down with creditors in August 2015. Wage arrears have been accumulating and unemployment rising, while those who receive paychecks have seen their value sharply eroded: the hryvnia has slumped by a third against the dollar since last year, and inflation has breached 50 percent.
Amid this dual emergency, the government of President Petro Poroshenko has been pushing through a radical neoliberal restructuring. “It would be sad to waste this crisis and not make reforms,” remarked Aivaras Abromavičius, the Lithuanian-born minister of economy and trade. Much of the program now underway was devised in consultation with the IMF, in exchange for a $40 billion bailout, and is laid out in successive Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) between Kyiv and the fund. The agenda being advanced is, in classic IMF fashion, aggressively Friedmanite, aiming for a drastic shrinkage in the size and regulatory power of the state, while at the same time opening up swaths of the public sector for private profit. The February 2015 MoU, for instance, envisaged an “expenditure-led consolidation that targets a smaller and more efficient government,” as part of “deep and broad structural reforms to improve business climate, attract sizable domestic and foreign investment, and boost Ukraine’s growth potential.”
What does this actually mean, in concrete terms? No one who’s seen the fund in action over the past forty years will find anything new here. There will be sweeping job cuts that will thin the ranks of the civil service by 20 percent. Much of that will be accomplished by shutting down several regulatory bodies. A planned “rationalization” in education will bring the eventual closure of three-fifths of the country’s higher education institutions. Utility prices, including heating, in a country whose capital is farther north than Winnipeg, have already increased fourfold; further budgetary “consolidation” will be achieved by reforms to the pension system and by “reducing the social security contribution wedge” (that is, cutting unemployment and health benefits). The burden of these measures will fall disproportionately on the less well-off. Capital, on the other hand, is being offered all manner of handouts: the health-care sector will be steadily opened up to private financing, and in May the government announced a push to privatize 342 state-owned enterprises, including power plants, construction companies, mines, and the port of Odessa, one of the largest in the former USSR. Taxes on coal- and mineral-mining concerns will be reduced, since they “could be discouraging investments.” Kyiv has also committed itself to primary budget surpluses, that is, no deficits, sucking demand out of the economy even as GDP contracts. Much of the dirty work of administering the austerity has been dumped on regional authorities — so there are obviously some kinds of decentralization the Poroshenko government likes.
We have been here many times before: the imaginary clash between past and future incarnations of a given country.Tweet
Strangely, for a country of Ukraine’s size, many of the people implementing the reforms are not from Ukraine. Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, a native of Chicago, was a US Embassy staffer in Kyiv from 1992 to 2000; though of Ukrainian-American origin, she only acquired Ukrainian citizenship when she was appointed in December 2014. Economy Minister Abromavičius was naturalized at the same time, along with former Georgian health minister Alexander Kvitashvili. These recruits from two of neoliberalism’s post-Soviet poster children were joined in February 2015 by perhaps Poroshenko’s highest-profile appointee, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. Hounded out of Tbilisi in late 2013, he had then “commandeered his uncle’s apartment in a tower on the Williamsburg waterfront,” according to a New York Times profile, which made him sound like a hipster Ahmed Chalabi (apparently, “at the Smorgasburg food fair . . . Saakashvili motored in fluorescent green sneakers among bearded men with tattoos and women in revealing overalls”). Poroshenko somehow managed to lure him away, first making him head of his new international advisory council, then naming him governor of Odessa province in May. No role has yet been found, though, for the man who campaigned in successive Ukrainian elections as “Darth Vader,” in full costume and flanked by Stormtroopers.
Western governments and institutions have not just helped to design the neoliberal overhaul of Ukraine’s socioeconomic system, they have worked to accelerate and radicalize it. Each MoU has committed Kyiv to a series of “structural benchmarks” — deadlines for certain legislation to be passed, a given number of functionaries to be made redundant, privatization plans to be drawn up, and so on. But by the spring of 2015, the pace was still too slow for some. In late April, US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt — he of the famous phone conversation with Assistant Secretary of State Victoria “Fuck the EU” Nuland — said that “the Ukrainian people would like the process to move faster than this,” adding, with a none-too-convincing attempt at altruism, “We would also like to see the process move faster, because the faster it moves the more quickly we will be able to help.” At around the same time, the World Bank’s local nuncio, Qimiao Fan, spoke understandingly of the “exogenous shocks” Ukraine had suffered, before pointing out that “faster and deeper reforms are the best antidote.”
One needn’t look too far for other examples of fiscal austerity and economic restructuring being applied in the midst of a catastrophic downturn. Greece is one obvious parallel, especially since one of the key institutions involved, the IMF, is the same as in Ukraine. But there are echoes, too, of the shock therapy imposed on Russia as the USSR collapsed. In today’s Ukraine as in Yeltsin’s Russia, the reform agenda draws heavily on the thinking of the Chicago School. Then as now, speed was deemed to be of the essence — a rapid, even traumatic dismantling of the country’s former socioeconomic structures seen as essential to its future survival, lest the remnants of the past somehow regain their zombie-like grip on the present. And then, too, Western governments and financial institutions played a key role in devising the reforms.
There is also something uncannily familiar about the terminology and rhetoric being deployed. “Can a group of young reformers fix a broken country?” asked the New York Times on January 3. These words could have been written about more or less anywhere in the post-Soviet space in the early 1990s — or, for that matter, about countless other places since; if Vladimir Propp were still around to study the morphology of liberal internationalism, he would probably identify “young reformers” as one of its basic character functions. Ukrainian politicians and Western pundits alike have also repeatedly drawn a contrast between a “new Ukraine” and an “old” one. For George Soros and Bernard-Henri Lévy, writing in the New York Times in January 2015, “the new Ukraine seeks to become the opposite of the old Ukraine, which was demoralized and riddled with corruption.” In June, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced in the Washington Post that “Ukraine is fighting a war on two fronts” — not just “the one you see on television” (that is, against Russia), but also a “war against the Soviet past and the legacy of corruption and misrule that has held us back for so many years.” For two decades, in part because of its internal political divisions, Ukraine had lagged behind the rest of the post-Soviet states in carrying out reforms; now it was going to make up for lost time. John Herbst, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, summed up most succinctly what is at stake in an April speech in Kyiv: “It is really reaction versus the future.”
There is another unwanted family resemblance between Ukraine today and the state from whose geopolitical sway it is trying to escape.Tweet
We have been here many times before: the imaginary clash between past and future incarnations of a given country is an especially well-worn trope, in which each of the terms is orbited by its cluster of ideologically charged signifiers — dreary/corrupt/bureaucratic/oligarchic/Communist/Baathist vs. vibrant/modern/entrepreneurial/capitalist/democratic, et cetera. But the Ukrainian version of this cliché has, for obvious reasons, become intertwined with the country’s geopolitical situation, so that “old” and “new” are each also represented by external powers — the one by Russia, the other by the West. This was, of course, part of the emotive charge of the Maidan protests: the choice between the EU Association Agreement on the one hand and the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union on the other was often posed in “civilizational” and temporal terms, as an option for a “European” future over the atavism of the Soviet past. The annexation of Crimea and outbreak of conflict in eastern Ukraine only served to sharpen and entrench these metaphoric contrasts. Since then Putin’s Russia has become increasingly set in its role as heartland of dictatorship, while Ukraine represents, as per Timothy Snyder on the New York Review of Books’s blog, the “Edge of Europe,” and by the same token the “Edge of Democracy.” Mikheil Saakashvili, writing in the Washington Post in late February, deployed a trusty cold war analogy to convey the same message, announcing that “Ukraine is today’s West Berlin: the frontline in the defense of Western values against Russian revanchism.”
These binary oppositions are obviously facile, and based on some embarrassingly wrongheaded assumptions: for instance, the idea that the EU could be said to stand for democracy, or that a government headed by one of Ukraine’s richest men could mark a rupture with the oligarchic past. Yet there is another, more unsettling contradiction at work here. In today’s conflict, Russia is held to stand for the “old,” corrupt, oligarchic order. But Putinism itself is ultimately the product of a post-Soviet country’s subjection to shock therapy and war — in other words, of precisely the combination of circumstances that are now supposed to bring about the “new” Ukraine.
It seems hard today to imagine Russia without Vladimir Putin, so closely have the fates and images of the two become intertwined, both inside the country and outside it. He has dominated the Russian political scene for a decade and a half now, and the whole modus operandi of the state bears his distinctive mark. The economy, too, has since the oil boom of the 2000s seemed a different kind of object from the tottering, chaotic structure of the 1990s. Yet although Putin is often thought to have overturned many of the policies of that era, he has in fact kept to the fundamental principles laid down during Yeltsin’s neoliberal restructuring. Far from destroying the legacies of the 1990s, he is their legitimate heir.
For one thing, Putin didn’t invent the hyperpresidentialism and contempt for the electoral process for which he has been rightly criticized: they were central to Boris Yeltsin’s rule, and to the establishment of post-Soviet capitalism. The free-market reforms and privatizations of the early 1990s were forced through largely by executive decree, and many of the key laws were actually drafted by Western advisers. When the elected parliament disagreed, Yeltsin sent tanks to shell it into submission. He then rewrote the constitution, giving the president more powers — this was duly approved in December 1993 by a rigged referendum. Voter fraud was again required to secure Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996 against an uninspiring Communist candidate. In expressing his relief at the outcome, Anatoly Chubais — one of the “young reformers” of the day — was pretty frank about what had been at stake: “Russian democracy is irrevocable, private ownership in Russia is irrevocable, market reforms in the Russian state are irrevocable.”
The priority given to market reforms over democracy was not a chance outcome of the Yeltsin presidency. It was rooted in an overriding commitment to the creation of private wealth, which was embraced as the foundation of the new capitalist system. Gaping inequalities were even to be encouraged as necessary by-products of this process; the wellbeing of the Russian population as a whole came a distant second. For all the undoubted differences between them, in this particular respect Putin has been true to his predecessor’s legacy. Much has been made of Putin’s apparent assault on oligarchic privilege, especially the dismantling of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, after 2003. But picking on particular tycoons is one thing, attacking the very idea of private profit-making quite another. Putin has in fact furnished the country with several times more billionaires than Yeltsin did — largely thanks to the macroeconomic good fortune of historically high oil prices, although corruption may well account for some of the fortunes made by those in Putin’s inner circle. While the individuals at the summits of wealth and power have changed over time, the underlying dynamic of elite enrichment that Yeltsin launched has been sustained under Putin.
Western commentators have also tended to attribute to Putin a desire to restore the state’s dominance over the whole economy, seemingly reversing the entrepreneurial momentum of the 1990s. But again the contrast is overdrawn: Putin’s statism has all along been selective, confined to particular sectors deemed strategic — natural resources above all. In the rest of the economy, his governments have worked to extend the reach of private capital rather than rein it in. His first administration, from 2000 to 2004, was perhaps his most energetically neoliberal, slashing corporate taxes and introducing a low, flat income tax, as well as rewriting the labor code to scale back workers’ rights. But his second presidency, too, was marked by moves to increase the private sector’s role in education, health, and housing, and by the conversion of several in-kind social benefits to cash payments — a “monetization” that was delayed and modified in the face of popular protests but carried through all the same. From 2008 to 2012, as prime minister to his own appointed successor, Dmitri Medvedev, Putin also oversaw the bailout of many of Russia’s privately owned banks and large corporations with $50 billion of state funds, a socialization of losses that was in proportional terms only slightly smaller than the largesse granted to Wall Street. Since 2014, the combined effect of low oil prices and Western sanctions has sent an already slowing economy into recession, so it’s hardly surprising that there should be some fiscal tightening. But the distribution of cutbacks speaks volumes about the Kremlin’s priorities: it has reduced education, social, and health spending; closed hospitals; and tried to squeeze more “productivity” out of doctors. Though pensions have not yet been cut, they are lagging significantly behind inflation. Here as in Ukraine, in fact, a crisis is being seized as an opportunity to carry out more liberalization. The difference is that, in the Russian case, Western commentators are willing to see these cuts for what they are: a further onslaught against the most vulnerable so that a narrow elite can hold on to its winnings.
There is another unwanted family resemblance between Ukraine today and the state from whose geopolitical sway it is trying to escape. The springboard for Putin’s rise to the presidency was the Second Chechen War, launched in August 1999 in response to an incursion into Dagestan by fighters led by the Chechen Islamist warlord Shamil Basayev. The first war, ranging the Russian army against bands of separatist fighters, had ended in 1996 in an ignominious stalemate, seen at the time as definitive proof of the decline of Russian power. A key part of Putin’s popular appeal, first as prime minister leading the war effort and then as martial president, was his commitment to reversing the humiliation inflicted in the North Caucasus — famously summed up in his vow to “wipe out” Chechen separatists “in the shithouse.” Though designed to end once and for all any aspirations to independence, Putin’s war in Chechnya was labeled an “anti-terrorist operation.” This is, of course, also what the Ukrainian government’s effort to reclaim the Donbass is called. Warmly endorsed by the West, the assault on Chechnya was central to the consolidation of Putin’s power after 2000, not only in terms of personnel — many of his early appointees were veterans of the conflict — but also in creating the elusive enemies and lurking sense of threat on which authoritarian tendencies thrive. Chechnya, too, was the proving ground for the prickly nationalism that Russia has increasingly expressed on the world stage. Though here again, the impact of shock therapy should not be forgotten: the humiliations Putin has sought to reverse are not only geopolitical, tied to the USSR’s collapse; they are also social, stemming from the impoverishment, instability, and unemployment wrought by the transition to capitalism.
The country a more fully neoliberalized Ukraine is most likely to end up resembling is not Poland but Russia.Tweet
Putinism is in all these respects the product of the 1990s. But this is not to say that what came before that wasn’t important. In many ways, Soviet political traditions and economic structures helped set the terms of Russia’s response to the long post-Communist emergency. The same was true of the other countries of the former USSR: though they seemed to be headed in separate directions after 1991, their shared, recent past made their early experiences of capitalism and “democracy” more similar than they might care to admit. Rapid and crooked privatizations, swaggering oligarchs, and blunt assertions of presidential power became the norm across a whole swath of the former USSR. This notably set these countries apart from other ex-Communist states: Hungary and Poland carried out more gradual privatizations, for instance, and on the whole went through somewhat less tumultuous “transitions.”
In Ukraine, privatization wasn’t conducted with the same zeal as in Russia, and the fractiousness of Ukrainian politics prevented any single figure from consolidating power around himself to quite the extent Yeltsin or Putin did. The political struggles of the 2000s, from the Orange Revolution onward, not only reflected real divisions but demonstrated the impossibility of hyperpresidentialism along Russian lines in Ukraine. Yanukovych is often seen as a lesser version of Putin — a corrupt, brutal authoritarian who would gladly have done away with elections if he could. But to insist on this is to miss the fact that the country’s political and cultural heterogeneity would have prevented him from even trying.
Still, Ukraine is very much part of the ex-Soviet story rather than the Eastern bloc narrative, and the past it shares with Russia, as a former component of the USSR, continues to shape its politics, its economy, its social and cultural life. Today’s advocates of shock therapy in Ukraine look fondly to the example of Poland, suggesting that the country could just replicate that experience rather than the semi-criminal free-for-all that took place in Russia. But Poland and Ukraine have very different recent histories and much less in common than Ukraine has with the former Soviet countries. Shock therapy is supposed to wipe the slate clean, doing away with all vestiges of the past in order to give countries subjected to it a fresh start. But the post-Soviet experience showed that the past wasn’t so easily shaken off: sudden, forced restructuring had similar effects across much of the ex-USSR in the 1990s, bringing forth parallel political responses and adaptations in everyday life. All this pointed insistently back to what these countries had previously had in common: not only the shared rule of the Communist Party and the planned economy it had set in place but the whole Soviet architecture of social life, manifested in everything from political discourse to shopping habits, from TV advertising to literary culture.
In other words, to paraphrase the old joke, if Ukraine wants to become Poland, it shouldn’t start from here. In fact, the country a more fully neoliberalized Ukraine is most likely to end up resembling is not Poland but Russia — the very state currently held up as the symbol of oppression. The relevance of the Russian example was explicitly admitted, on the economic front at least, by Alexander Borovik, one of Saakashvili’s advisers in Odessa: unveiling a package of proposed reforms in mid-September 2015, he noted that the bulk of them had already been carried out in Russia — so it was Kyiv that needed to catch up with Moscow. Politically, Poroshenko, with his bland smile and charisma-free speaking style, seems an unlikely candidate for the role of a Putin-type strongman, and for now, the country’s politicians seem to be sticking to their disputatious habits rather than falling obediently into line. But the conflict in the Donbass may be helping to consolidate a more coherent nationalist consensus than has existed in Ukraine before, laying the groundwork for a possible authoritarian turn in the future. The spreading influence of the far right is one alarming symptom of this: organizations like Right Sector and Patriot of Ukraine have played a prominent role in the militias fighting in the east, and far-right slogans and concepts have been readily absorbed by the political mainstream in recent months. If Putin is the product of a Soviet past, war, and shock therapy, the “new” Ukraine now has all three of these ingredients , too—and might yet become a delayed echo of Putin’s Russia.
But wasn’t Ukraine’s economy in need of reform? Didn’t something have to be done about all the corruption, the inefficiency, the oligarchs who ran the show under Yanukovych? The reasonable answer to these questions might seem to be Yes — who in their right mind would want things to just stay the way they were? It’s worth remembering, though, that there is no such thing as reform in the abstract. One of the less obvious successes of neoliberal ideologues in recent decades has been their appropriation of this apparently neutral label to describe restructuring programs whose consequences are far from neutral. What have been blandly termed reforms have all along been deeply political processes, benefiting some social groups and interests a great deal more than others. The goal of the neoliberal brand of reform is to scale back the role of the state and boost the power of private enterprise — the theory being that creating wealth at the top of the income pyramid will unleash a virtuous circle of growth for everyone else too, bringing greater competition and all-around dynamism to the economy.
Are there alternative paths Ukraine could follow?Tweet
Since the 1980s, Western governments and agencies such as the IMF and World Bank have applied the neoliberal recipe to one country after another, from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America to Eastern Europe, using loan conditions to force governments to deregulate their economies and crowbar the public sector open for private capital. In each case, a select handful of people did very well out of this, but for the vast majority of the population, the actual outcomes of these reforms ranged from bad to catastrophic. The retreat of the state left millions without jobs or basic services, gaps that private enterprise notably failed to fill. In sub-Saharan Africa, the IMF decreed cuts in government spending on agriculture, health, and education, which among other things increased these countries’ reliance on food imports, amplified the effects of malnutrition, and reduced their capacity to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. Some states have never recovered from the dislocations that structural adjustment brought: the “reforms” carried out in Somalia in the 1980s, for example, destroyed its agriculture and helped pave the way for the disintegration of the 1990s. In Eastern Europe, the main upshot of neoliberal reforms was a dramatic spike in inequalities of all kinds, and nosediving public-health indicators.
The conventional wisdom these days is that the IMF is no longer imposing the same kind of dogmatic “conditionalities” on countries that borrow from it — having apparently learned that completely hollowing out the state is not such a great idea, especially if you ever want to get the money back. But to judge by the reforms the IMF is recommending for Ukraine, not all that much has changed — it’s the same neoliberal orthodoxy all over again, which the fund has been able to impose mainly because Ukraine’s situation is so dire. Over the past year or so, the pincers of war and debt have created a climate of emergency in which drastic measures have come to seem necessary. Yet the policies the Poroshenko government is currently implementing will do little to address Ukraine’s most pressing needs. There is much high-sounding rhetoric about “transparency” and a crackdown on corruption but little sign of a shift in elite behavior. Ukrainian anticorruption activists claim that large chunks of IMF bailout money — as much as $1.8 billion — have been siphoned away into bank accounts in Cyprus. The drastic downsizing of the state envisaged in the MoUs is likely to create ever more gray areas where graft can flourish — as the results of dozens of IMF and World Bank structural-adjustment programs have confirmed. Likewise, the experience of the Yeltsin administration would suggest that the government’s shortage of revenues will hardly be made good through the privatization of state assets at fire-sale prices. Both these measures will, however, “improve the business climate” — that is, keep Western creditors happy.
The same is true of the cutbacks in government spending, which — as in Greece — seek fiscal rectitude at the expense of domestic demand and the country’s social fabric. Even before the Maidan, Ukraine was one of poorest countries in Europe, with around a quarter of the population — more than ten million people — living below the official poverty line; that figure will now have risen further. Before the fall of Yanukovych, much of the deprivation was concentrated in rural areas in the country’s west; indeed, prolonged hardship was one source of antigovernment sentiment there in the fall of 2013. At the time, by contrast, Donetsk and Luhansk were on average less deprived than much of the country, but even so, the sense that local residents might be economically better off as part of Russia, where wages and pensions are higher, was one of the motives behind the anti-Maidan protests of 2014. In this context, economic austerity brings with it clear political hazards, aggravating existing discontents that have already helped topple one government and fuel a separatist movement.
By eroding the state’s capacity to provide basic services, austerity poses longer-term threats, too. Ukraine’s public-health indicators, for instance, are already among the worst in Europe — and they don’t look great from a global perspective either. The country’s male life expectancy is 66, which is marginally better than Pakistan’s or Rwanda’s but worse than Nepal’s. The rate of prevalence of HIV/AIDS, at 466 per 100,000, is twice the European average, and considerably higher than, say, Brazil’s or Senegal’s; the figure for tuberculosis is similarly high — almost five times higher than Poland’s but on a par with Uzbekistan’s. The Ukrainian government was already funding efforts to slow the advance of such diseases only partly, relying on international donors to pick up the rest of the tab. Last year, however, almost half the TB-control budget was left unfunded by anyone. With the Poroshenko government slashing spending all around, it’s hard to see things improving anytime soon. In fact, the push to privatize more of the health system, spearheaded by Kvitashvili, will if anything make it harder to coordinate urgent public-health efforts.
Are there alternative paths Ukraine could follow? Any post-Maidan regime would have faced a difficult economic situation, as well as Russian promptings and covert interventions in the east. It’s important to recognize, though, that the Poroshenko government has itself helped to narrow the options available. The military escalation in the Donbass was far from inevitable, spurred not only by Russian maneuverings but by Kyiv’s decision — with fulsome Western backing — to launch the Anti-Terrorist Operation in April 2014. Since then the war has resulted in thousands of casualties and proved a tremendous drain on the country’s scarce resources: to military spending should be added the cost of losing control over Donetsk and Luhansk, which reportedly account for 16 percent of Ukrainian GDP. The outlines of a peace settlement have been clear for some time — something like federalization, balanced by guarantees of Ukraine’s security. Kyiv has made grudging moves toward a more limited “decentralization,” which have been met by violent protests from the far right. But the sooner these largely rhetorical gestures can be given actual political substance, the sooner the crux of the conflict can be dealt with and the war’s manifold burdens lifted.
For all the damaging sacrifices austerity is imposing, Ukraine will still be saddled with painfully high debt levels for some time. The debt will in turn serve, in the long run, as a disciplinary mechanism to make sure the neoliberal reshaping of Ukraine’s socioeconomic system continues. Here, it’s not just Western hedge funds that are exerting the pressure but also the Kremlin. Ukraine owes Russia $3 billion, in the form of bonds that originally contained “cross-default” provisions — that is, a Ukrainian default would trigger immediate payment on all the country’s other bonds. This seemingly suicidal clause may no longer apply in the wake of the August 2015 debt deal, but Putin’s finance minister has been insisting on repayment of Ukraine’s Russian debt in full this December — which may mean a large tranche of IMF money will head straight to Moscow (and from there, who knows, maybe to Cyprus as well).
Given its fervently pro-market leanings, it’s not surprising that the Poroshenko government should be opposed on principle to bilking its Western creditors. But the debt crisis has nonetheless at times conjured the specter of wholesale default, prompting occasional nervous references to Argentina. And there were moments when it seemed possible the Maidan might turn into a revolt against the entire political and economic elite, along Argentine lines. Yet the targets of protest remained more narrowly defined: symptomatically, the slogan of late 2013 and early 2014, “Bandu get’!” — “Out with the Gang!” — referred specifically to the Yanukovych regime. Since then, Poroshenko has been spared any Buenos Aires–style, saucepan-wielding popular upsurge; the giant borscht pots brought to Maidan to feed the protesters have been taken home rather than used as instruments of protest. This is partly because the confrontation with Russia has allowed the energies of the Maidan to be channeled through existing political parties (and volunteer armed battalions) rather than sweeping the entire setup away. But it’s also because the Ukrainian forces with the greatest mobilizing capacity — especially the far right — have little interest in assaulting the edifice of oligarchic privilege that has dominated the country for so long, and which continues to decide its future.
In April 2015, as part of its effort to create a “unified” polity capable of both fighting the war against Russia and carrying through shock therapy, the Ukrainian parliament banned “Communist symbols and propaganda.” One of the effects of this measure was to further delegitimize the idea of radical egalitarianism. At present, though, it’s hard to identify groups or movements that might take up such contraband thinking and make it have practical consequences: the Ukrainian left, already small, was rapidly marginalized on the Maidan before splitting over the “Russian Spring” in the east, and remains weak and fragmented. Yet is it impossibly utopian to imagine that the very process of neoliberal restructuring could eventually generate another broad-based oppositional movement, drawn from among the disparate social groups that have emerged from the ruins of the Soviet-era working class and intelligentsia? In Ukraine as elsewhere, the advocates of a “new” country insist that what stands in their way is the remnants of the “old.” But it may be that the society they are busily trying to create will prove more resistant to their designs than the one they seek to leave behind — the future more radically stubborn, perhaps, than the receding past.