Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Oligarchs and Politics in Ukraine

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Oligarchs and Politics in Ukraine

Article excerpt

Abstract: Since Ukraine's formal political regime has changed substantially several times over the last two decades, the country offers an ideal case to study the relationship between political regime dynamics and the political role of the oligarchs. Based on an original dataset covering all Ukrainian oligarchs and on case studies of different forms of political influence, this article shows that a core of oligarchs has remained stable throughout the period under study from 2000 to 2015 and that their strategies to exert political influence have remained largely unchanged. These strategies, based on informal manipulations, have clearly put the political opposition at a pronounced disadvantage. However, oligarchs are not the major power brokers in Ukrainian politics, as they have always sought accommodation with those having or gaining political power, i.e. the oligarchs do not determine who wins political power, but they act as catalysts for an ongoing change by giving additional support to the winning side. In such settings the major impact of regime dynamics on the political role of oligarchs has been in the degree of political rivalry. A higher degree of political rivalry leads to pluralism by default, which gives political parties, parliamentary deputies and mass media more freedom and is reflected in democracy rankings by better marks. However, as the oligarchs' informal manipulations continue largely unchanged, such pluralism does not indicate a genuine commitment to democratic standards.


Based on the classical definition of oligarchy, i.e. the rule of a few self-interested elites, the term "oligarch" denotes, among other things, entrepreneurs who use their wealth to exert political influence. In this context, the concept of an oligarch is also closely associated with political corruption, and the term is primarily used in the analysis of formally democratic systems with authoritarian tendencies, such as those found in Latin America, South-East Asia and, since the 1990s, in Eastern Europe. In a narrower sense, which is how the term will be used here, the concept does not include politicians or civil servants who use their political influence to obtain control over economic activities.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, the influence of oligarchs has increasingly come to be seen as a central feature of the political regime. When oligarchs succeeded in securing a pro-presidential majority in parliament in 2000, luring away deputies from other parliamentary factions, their power became evident. To the opposition, the oligarchs became symbolic of President Leonid Kuchma's corrupt and undemocratic power-grabbing strategies. Some of the central demands of the successful opposition protests at the end of 2004 therefore included the prosecution of the oligarchs and the separation of business and politics. However, oligarchs remained an important feature of Ukrainian politics during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko which followed. After Yushchenko lost the presidential election in 2010 to Viktor Yanukovych, the role of oligarchs was seen as gaining in importance. When Yanukovych was ousted in 2014, oligarchs again assumed prominent political offices. Accordingly, oligarchs are treated as a key factor in Ukrainian politics.

This analysis will compare the political role of oligarchs for the Kuchma presidency (2nd term from 2000 to 2004), the Yushchenko presidency (2005 to 2010), the Yanukovych presidency (2010 to 2014) and the Poroshenko presidency (since 2014). During the four periods under study, the formal political regime of Ukraine has changed substantially. Ukraine, therefore, offers an ideal case to examine the relationship between political regime dynamics and the political role of the oligarchs.

The analysis starts with a summary of the current state of research concerning the political role of oligarchs. After a brief introduction to the relevant changes of Ukraine's formal political regime, the rise of the Ukrainian oligarchs as entrepreneurs is outlined and the term oligarch is operationalized for the empirical analysis. …

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