Weekend Roundup: Oligarchs Are As Much a Threat As the Autocrat Next Door

Civil society activism, not elections, drive democracy in Ukraine

Nathan Gardels

The election in Ukraine this week shows that the challenge to democracy there comes as much from oligarchic corruption within as from the menacing autocrat next door in Russia.

As Vitaly Shabunin and Olena Haluskha report from Kiev, “After the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday, the country will likely be stuck with an oligarch-linked president yet again. The two presidential front-runners are Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian linked to one of Ukraine’s most controversial oligarchs, and incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch himself.” Zelensky was the big first-round winner, with about 30 percent of the vote, followed by Poroshenko, with about 16 percent. The two will compete in a runoff election later this month.

That the leading candidate’s platform is mostly comprised of satire and ridicule reflects the kind of popular anti-establishment frustration seen elsewhere among the Western democracies. But the hidden hold of the country’s most powerful businessmen will be difficult to break.

“Besides ongoing Russian aggression, Ukraine’s biggest problem remains its oligarchs,” the authors write. “Many Ukrainian oligarchs rely on a network of Western banks and lawyers to launder the proceeds of their corruption and to whitewash their reputations in the West. Oligarchs own the top five television stations in Ukraine, and television still serves as the primary source of information for 74 percent of Ukrainians.”

Ukrainians are discovering that elections alone do not make a democracy, but they can actually undermine it.

As the legal scholar Ganesh Sitaraman points out in his 2017 book, “The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution”, “because of the asymmetry of time and resources, elections are dominated by the organized and the moneyed who are then chosen to govern. Elections even favor the rise of aristocracy.” Though speaking about the United States, what he writes is doubly true of the Ukraine.

Indeed, the pattern there so far would seem to affirm the cynical view that electoral democracy is a kind of sham. As Wang Huning, the Chinese Communist Party’s top theorist, once put it, electoral democracy can be compared to stockholders in a corporation in which everyone who owns a share theoretically has a voice, but in reality the company is controlled by those with the largest minority stake.

Fortunately, all is not lost in Ukraine thanks to an active civil society outside the electoral arena. As Shabunin and Halushka reflect, “five years after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, with the help of international partners, civil society is continuing to drive reform forward. Since the revolution, we have built tools to detect and investigate high-profile corruption, including an electronic system revealing officials’ asset declarations and an award-winning electronic procurement system that helps fight corrupt government purchases and boost competition.” Civil society activists have also won assurances that a recently established High Anti-Corruption Court will give “a special panel of foreign experts” a crucial role in selecting judges, thus circumventing interference by the encompassing web of oligarchic influence.

The authors conclude: “Grass-roots democratization is even more important to ensure that the gains of the past five years aren’t erased. Brave Ukrainians across the country continue to stand up to the old guard, who somehow still believe they can continue running their feudal businesses as usual. This ranges from monitoring public finances and local self-governance to fighting against illegal construction projects.”

For reasons of genuine concern, but also as political ploys, the leftover hostilities of the last Cold War are being warmed over across the West. But if we are once again to pit democracy against autocracy on ideological grounds, we should first attend to fixing our own failures within. Above all, that means thinking outside of the ballot box and recognizing that elections are only a guarantor of popular sovereignty if they are not dominated by insiders with the resources and time to outmaneuver the general public.