The New Ukrainian Exceptionalism – Analysis


Ukrainian leaders, under siege from Russian and separatist forces, resist constructive criticism.

By Matthew Rojansky and Mykhailo Minakov*

The slow boiling war in Southeastern Ukraine is by now well known to the world. It has been projected in stark moral and political terms and in gruesome detail by the international press, Ukrainian and Western political leaders, and ordinary Ukrainian citizens. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Ukraine is engaged in a struggle not only for its sovereignty, but for its very survival as a nation-state.

In this hour of need, every Ukrainian citizen and every self-described friend of Ukraine in the international community should not only speak but act in support of Ukraine. But speaking out and taking action in support of Ukraine have become increasingly fraught in recent months. Russian-backed aggression, relentless propaganda and meddling in Ukraine’s domestic politics have pushed many Ukrainians to adopt a deeply polarized worldview, in which constructive criticism, dissenting views, and even observable facts are rejected out of hand if they are seen as harmful to Ukraine. This phenomenon might be termed the new Ukrainian exceptionalism, and it is worrisome because it threatens the very democratic values Ukrainians espouse, while weakening Ukraine’s case for international support.

The new Ukrainian exceptionalism comes at a high price for Ukrainian civil society and for the international community focused on helping Ukraine. There have already been cases in which prominent Ukrainian thought leaders have been threatened and even attacked for expressing views critical of the government, nationalist politicians, or volunteer militias. Likewise, among Ukraine’s friends abroad there is precious little tolerance for views that dissent from the dominant party line that Ukraine’s current government is the best it has ever had, and that the West must provide not only political and financial support, but also supply it with lethal weapons to fight the Russians in Donbas.

This exceptionalist worldview is nowhere more evident than in the discourse around Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko is a billionaire confectionary baron who also owns banking and agricultural assets, and several influential media platforms, most notably Ukraine’s Fifth Channel, and who served in high government posts, including as Yanukovych’s minister of economic development and minister of foreign affairs under Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Today, Poroshenko presides over a state and a government that has committed to a reform campaign it styles as “de-oligrachization.”

Yet when queried about whether, as an oligarch himself, Poroshenko can be effective in removing oligarchic influence from Ukraine’s politics and economy, many Ukrainians feel compelled to defend their wartime leader by denying that he is, in fact, an oligarch in the first place. Or if he is one, they say, he’s a different kind of oligarch, certainly the best of the bunch. After all, they reason, he has used his wealth and influence to help Ukraine and fight Russia, and anyway, his business interests are more transparent and of more value to the country than those of his rivals. Instead of selling his businesses, as he promised to do during last year’s presidential campaign, Poroshenko has held onto them, demonstrating that even in the new Ukraine, politics and the private sector remain inseparable.

The exceptionalism does not stop with Poroshenko. In fact, the same tortured logic extends to support for other “good” oligarchs: Lviv’s mayor Andriy Sadovyi, who has run that city for nearly a decade, owns major media, electrical utility and financial assets, and has backed his own party in the national parliament, is described as having made Lviv a “lighthouse” for Ukrainian reform, on the model of neighboring Poland. Even Dnipropetrovsk’s Ihor Kolomoiskiy, who himself embraces the oligarch moniker, has spent millions in defense of Ukraine against Russian aggression, served as governor of a vulnerable frontline region and held it together, and besides, his Privat Bank group is a pillar of Ukraine’s financial stability. So, while oligarchy in general might be bad, Ukraine’s most patriotic oligarchs, the exceptionalists argue, are not.

The same goes for the country’s far right political forces. Cite the rise of Praviy Sektor, or Right Sector, during and after the Euro-Maidan, and many Ukrainians will point to the radical right movement’s poor performance in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Point to the resurgence of symbols and slogans of the Second World War ultra-nationalist Union of Ukrainian Nationalists, OUN, or the newly passed laws banning “Soviet symbols,” canonizing controversial Ukrainian nationalist figures Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, and they will say that Ukraine has every right to define its own history, even if it does so with blatant disregard and disrespect for that of millions of its citizens now living under Russian occupation or otherwise not fully represented in the government. The new Ukrainian exceptionalism makes it possible for undercurrents of intolerance and extreme nationalism to cohabit with stated commitments to pluralism and democracy.

The Euro-Maidan was dubbed a Revolution of Dignity because it represented the victory of the people in defense of basic human rights and human dignity. But a year after that victory, the parliament has approved a decree limiting Ukraine’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So far, the decree applies only to portions of the two oblasts, or regions, of Donetsk and Luhansk where the war is going on, but it has been accompanied by allegations of torture and unlawful detention by Ukrainian authorities. These steps set a dangerous precedent for limitation of human rights without wide public discussion. Exceptionalism effectively gives carte-blanche to the government to act in the name of Ukraine’s security, while it fragments and diminishes the human rights activist community that was once a bulwark of the new Ukraine.

Finally, raise the problem of private armies in Ukraine, and one is told that the famous “volunteer battalions” are actually completely legal and legitimate police, interior ministry or army units that have been integrated under a single, responsible national command. This would be a reasonable position and an extremely important step to constrain possible future internecine violence, corporate raiding and other abuses in Ukraine, if only it were true.

The same goes for so-called soldier deputies, commanders of the volunteer battalions elected to the parliament last October, many of whom still appear in uniform and demonstrate scant regard for the boundaries between civilian and military authority. Dashing but bellicose figures like Serhii Melnychuk, Semen Semenchenko and Dmytro Yarosh, we are told, are not really soldiers any more, their grandstanding is just a PR exercise. Maybe so, but their message hardly confirms Ukraine’s commitment to rule of law, civilian control of the military, and national reconciliation. With prominent exceptions like these in the new Ukraine, it is increasingly difficult to identify the rule.

Without a doubt, Ukraine now faces its most severe crisis of the post-1991 period. In the face of attacks by Russia and its separatist allies, Ukraine deserves the support of its citizens and the wider world. Yet the enthusiasm of the world to help Ukraine will be diminished and the damage from Russian aggression magnified if Ukrainians succumb to the kind of exceptionalism described above. Instead, Ukrainians should seek to preserve what have actually been their most exceptional characteristics – a rare and genuine commitment to pluralism, civic freedom, and human dignity that make Ukraine a cause worth fighting for.

*Matthew Rojansky is director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC; Mykhailo Minakov is associate professor/docent in philosophy and religious studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and was a Fulbright-Kennan Scholar in 2012-13.

YaleGlobal Online

YaleGlobal Online is a publication of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. The magazine explores the implications of the growing interconnectedness of the world by drawing on the rich intellectual resources of the Yale University community, scholars from other universities, and public- and private-sector experts from around the world. The aim is to analyze and promote debate on all aspects of globalization through publishing original articles and multi-media presentations. YaleGlobal also republishes, with a brief comment, important articles from other publications that illuminate the many sides of this complex phenomenon. To the extent permitted by copyright arrangements, YaleGlobal archives such articles and makes them available for search and retrieval.

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