Date: 12 March 2018    Author: Aleksandra Romanowska

Ukraine: Freedom in the Shadow of Corruption

In the current discourse on Ukraine and Western policy towards Kiev, the idea of the authorities fighting a legitimate battle against corruption, not just one for public consumption, is being strongly articulated.

© Sergey Dolzhenko (PAP/EPA). Chernobyl, Ukraine, April 5, 2017. A general view of the new protective shelter over the remains of the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The explosion in Unit 4 in the early hours of April 26, 1986 is still regarded as the most catastrophic accident in the history of nuclear power generation. The Ukrainians will mark the 32nd anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy on April 26, 2018.

Washington and Brussels are directly tying further economic and political aid for Ukraine to the decisive reduction of corruption. In a dispute over the strategy and tactics of the anti-corruption campaign, a central place is occupied by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, a new institution in Ukraine that is either attacked or ignored by the centers of power and openly supported by Western diplomatic missions. Despite this support, its fate seems sealed: it will die or fade into the background, adopting a defensive position, unless a radical change in the political system can save it.


Chernobyl and Post-Chernobyl

Established on the basis of a resolution of the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, whose task is to track corruption among state officials and politicians, operates in an exceptionally unfavorable environment: it is a de facto anti-establishment institution in an oligarchic, historically and socially rooted patronage system. For many years Ukraine, as documented by Transparency International, has been one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In the latest ranking, it occupies the 131st place among 176, the lowest position in Europe. Before Euromaidan protests, it was 144th, even worse than Russia. The experience of the political transformation of Ukraine is not comparable with the histories of transition from socialism to capitalism in Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary. This is primarily due to historical conditions.

Ukraine was one of the most important parts of the Soviet empire, and in contrast to Poland, for example, the political and social system was exceptionally devastated after the collapse of the empire. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 was not only a symbol of ecological catastrophe, but also of the actual relationship between the citizen and the state – the “model” of Soviet freedom and the “model” of Soviet social relations. The internal opposition and the dissident movement were historically unprepared to take power, and just like the Orthodox Church, unable to read the signs of the times and support democratic change.

The first attempt to control the post-traumatic chaos after the breakup of the empire was the presidency of Leonid Kuchma, a meticulously KGB-controlled politician representing the post-Soviet nomenklatura[1], and the director of the largest armament factory in Europe. President Kuchma and his team got a handle on the chaos, then gradually took control over fragments of the failing state and economy. Contrary to the declarations of building a social market economy on the European model, however, they created a variant of the oligarchic system that generated exploitation, political violence and social inequalities. The president himself favored a particular metaphor for leaving socialism: “In socialism, it was like in a zoo: we sat in cages, it was warm, there was electricity, they brought food. One day they opened cages, turned off the electricity and we ran into the forest – the strongest survive.”[2]

A colorful symbol of the first Kuchma administration, the Ukrainian post-Chernobyl period, was the Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, a close associate of Kuchma whom he appointed and later dismissed after accusations of corruption appeared in the media. When it was clear that there was no chance to cover up the scandal, Lazarenko escaped Ukraine on a private plane. He asked for asylum in the United States, where he owned a $7 million villa and bank accounts holding about $150 million, mostly from bribes taken for privatized factories. Pasha, as they called him at the time in Kiev, shared half of the profits with the new owners. Allegedly, through carelessness, he left a notebook of transactions in the empty office of the Ukrainian prime minister. Julia Tymoszenko, the “gas princess”, who perfectly understands the logic of the new stage, as Lazarenko claimed, emerged from his “Dnepropetrovsk stable”.

The social history of Ukraine can be perfectly illustrated by the ups and downs of oligarchs, clans, families, intrigues as well as sudden and unexplained deaths. Similar phenomena and processes took place in Russia, with which Ukraine is strongly associated historically, economically and mentally. The largest individual fortunes in Russia and Ukraine were created in the gas and oil sector, often as a result of the joint efforts of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs in domestic and foreign markets. The conflicts between them for shares of profits from the export of gas and oil quickly turned into a political conflict between Moscow and Kiev.

The Ukrainian oligarchy had its origins in the first Kuchma administration. The vast majority of politicians who then appeared in his circle or in the Verkhovna Rada, are still active in various ways to this day. It is probably not a coincidence that the main Ukrainian negotiators with the Kremlin over the Donbass are old friends, godfathers of the Ukrainian oligarchy: Kuchma himself and former head of his office, Viktor Medwedczuk, co-author of the electoral success of Viktor Yanukovych and patron of the oligarchic clan, whose rule was ended by the Euromaidan protests.


Patronage State

The Ukrainian political system is often called using the Aristotlian definition, even in academic publications, an oligarchy or an oligarchic system. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, oligarchy is “a government exercised by a few, especially the despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes.”[3] In the Aristotelian classification of governments, there were two forms of governance by a few groups – aristocracy and its handicapped form, oligarchy. Although the term “oligarchy” is rarely used in relation to contemporary political systems, the phenomenon of irresponsible governance by small groups has not disappeared from the world. However, the concept of oligarchy used for description and analysis, not only of post-Soviet societies has many theoretical and practical limitations, hence the constant search for new theoretical perspectives. One of them is the concept of the patronage state.[4]


© Sergei Supinsky (EPA), December 22, 1998, Pavlo Lazarenko. In a rare case of a former foreign leader being tried in the United States, Lazarenko, the prime minister of Ukraine (1996-1997), was convicted of money laundering in June 2004. He was found guilty by a federal court in San Francisco of all twenty-nine counts against him in a case in which prosecutors said he stole from his own country and spirited the money abroad, laundering some of it in California banks.


In Poland, it was used mainly to analyze patron-client relations in the period of real socialism and after 1989 to research corruption in local communities. A patronage state is one in which the patron-client relationship is accepted as decisive in the satisfaction of basic human needs. “One of the most common motivations for creating such a type of bond, patron-client ties, is obtaining privileged access to limited goods and services”[5]. This is an “asymmetrical relationship” where “future members of the ‘clientelist’ union first occupy unequal positions in the social or organizational structure and precisely because of these inequalities enter the patron-client relationship. The mutual relations of the patron and the client can strengthen or weaken these differences, but the initial asymmetry has its source in placing both partners in a wider structure.”[6]


© Darek Delmanowicz (PAP). Przemyśl, September 10, 2017. Ukrainian prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.


In patron-client relationships, apart from declared friendship and loyalty, there may also be violence, exploitation and addiction. The patron-client relationship comes close to the concept of domination in the Weberian view. The relation of power in the patron-client system seems to be closest to the traditional, charismatic type of final dominion formulated by Max Weber.[7]


Network State

According to Henry E. Hale, the universal feature of the political process in the post-Soviet countries is the deep infiltration of the patron-client network and mechanisms, and clan-like relationships and their parasitic role in national economies.[8] According to the author, in post-Soviet states there are hidden political regimes in which political competition and decision-making take place in processes that are either partially or totally invisible in official activities and statements from public institutions, political parties and the media. Attempts to dismantle the political structure of these societies involves the identification of patrons (oligarchs) and tracing the network of links between their clients and competitors. It also involves the analysis of informal connections and their influence on official institutions: parliament, government, courts, prosecutors, police, media, NGOs. In “patronage” regimes, power is accumulated, kept and used within a more or less successful framework, maintained through the interaction between informal, sometimes interrelated, sometimes competing, patron pyramids and guided by the most senior patrons.

As a rule, the most powerful of these corrupt clans cover a wide range of social institutions, ranging from ministries, enterprises and media to civil society organizations. The coherence, effectiveness and durability of these pyramidal structures is based not only on the formal institutional hierarchy among their members, but also on their family ties and personal friendships, long-term knowledge, experience of informal transactions and such a prosaic foundation as mafia rules, accumulation of loyalty, blackmail material and ordinary fear.

Patron networks and pyramids act as informal mechanisms for exchanging positions, money, orders, real estate, goods, services, licenses, subsidies and benefits. In reality, corruption schemes form the basis, meaning and purpose of most post-Soviet “patronage policies”. These hidden regimes operate not only under the clear pressure of authoritarianism, but also in nominally democratic systems. Moreover, electoral systems are used to obtain real public support, and the electoral success of a country’s main political patron (for example the president), as well as regional elections, are an essential condition for acquiring, preserving and increasing their “patron” power. According to Ukrainian researcher Oleksandr Fisun, an advocate of applying the “patrimonial state” theory to the analysis of the situation in Ukraine, the restructuring of the presidential regime of Yanukovych after the Euromaidan protests led to the creation of a new, neo-patrimonial democracy in Ukraine. The current regime operates on the basis of competition between various customer networks – patrons exercising control over key profit-generating sources in the state administration and various sectors of the economy. The new patrimonial democracy has contributed to the rise of formal and informal obstacles to the development of a super-presidential regime and the return to the president’s personal rule. The balance of the system is ensured by the division of executive power between the president and the prime minister as well as the constant presence of competing patron networks. These conditions, formal and informal, also make it difficult to “capture” and subordinate the state to representatives of one oligarchic group and monopolize the political space at the national and regional level through one of the networks of the political and economic system under one clan. Ukrainian politics are still dirty, but for the time being they remain democratic.


Is There a Plan?

Can anti-corruption institutions succeed in a patron-network state? Does their creation make sense? Will the National Anti-Corruption Bureau be able to win the war with the networked prosecutor’s office, the networked court, the networked parliament, government and the president? Is it able to dismantle a visibly reviving patronage system, that is lifting its head after Euromaidan? These are not purely theoretical questions.

You can analyze the Anti-Corruption Bureau’s war with the hostile environment as a social and political experiment. This will likely expand knowledge about attempts by the prosecutor’s office to discredit the employees of the Bureau, the Security Service of Ukraine tracking its employees, including those working under cover and cut off from information and sources, as well as the Verkhovna Rada, where a draft resolution that essentially neutralizes the institution is ready (also stuck in the Parliament is a resolution to create the Anti-Corruption Court). An important role in this experiment is also being played by the president who has tried to find a good way out of the network’s contradiction: stay in power without losing the economic influence guaranteed by the network.

Analyses and descriptions of the colorful cases of the anti-heroes of this drama will be an interesting continuation of the history of Kuchma, Lazarenko, Yanukovych, the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan. However, if we have come this far in this dramatic history, and certainly a bit further than Ukraine’s neighbor supporting the separatists in Donbass, then perhaps at least theoretically it is worth considering a plan of structural political changes separating government from business, thus minimizing structural factors generating corruption.

Its first action may be the change of electoral law in elections to the Verkhovna Rada. The current law actually protects and recreates the clan structure of the parliament. Each of the strongest Ukrainian patrons has their branch in the Verkhovna Rada, its team can also buy votes from deputies from other factions, if necessary.

Thus, in Ukraine there is no political system familiar to Europe; in reality there are no political parties. “The existing electoral law protects the clan social structure and strengthens patron relations in politics,” writes Andreas Umland, “a system of closed electoral lists allows factions to sell places at the highest possible price. In single-member provincial electoral districts there are no effective civic organizations, media, independent observers and entrepreneurs, independent experts who could participate in the electoral process.”[9] The concentration of power, control of the media, and manipulation of the electoral process, complete this homogeneous political picture of Ukraine.

The ideals of the Orange Revolution lasted a year – the organizers celebrated its first anniversary in separate, hostile political camps. Demands to equalize opportunities and give a green light for the young middle class have never been realized; the winners divided Ukraine among themselves and as a result paved the way for the triumphant return of Yanukovych. His internal and foreign policy led to the Euromaidan protests, during which he escaped the country with a stolen fortune, fleeing as befits a criminal, under the cover of darkness and with the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine is a very important link in European security and a large part of Western public opinion is well aware of this. Considering the experience of the last two years, including the experiment with the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, it seems that the demand for structural political reform that starts the process of dismantling the patronage state is very timely. The first step may be what was called for several years ago: reforming the electoral law.



[1] The system in the Soviet Union by which the Communist Party appointed individuals to important positions in government and industry.

[2] L. Kuczma, Ukraina nie Rosja, (Kijów 2001), 246.

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica,

[4] J. Tarkowski, Socjologia świata polityki, t. 2: Patroni i klienci, (Warszawa 1994).

[5] J. Tarkowski, op.cit., 52.

[6] J. Tarkowski, op.cit., 75.

[7] A. Adamowicz A., Państwo patronalne, (Warszawa 2015), 39.

[8] H.E. Hale, Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective, (Cambridge University Press 2014).

[9] Коррупционная, патрональная система контратакует: как Украине не вернуться в темные времена,

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TAGS: Białoruś, Polska, dezinformacja, polski sędzia, Tomasz Szmydt 

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