Thursday, May 8, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russia, Not Ukraine, is a Failed State, Shteppa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 8 – Failed states come in a variety of shapes and sizes, one of Russia’s leading regionalist writers says, but on at least one important dimension, the Russian Federation is an example of a failed state while Ukraine, despite all its problems and Russian attacks, is a remarkably successful one.

            In a commentary on yesterday, Vadim Shteppa makes what will strike many as a counter-intuitive or even absurd argument by pointing to articles like those by Fyodor Lukyanov which say that Ukraine has not been able to build a state with good prospects for the future (

            As Shteppa notes, there are many definitions on offer of just what a failed state is. One of the most radical is the post-September 11 version offered by some Americans that a failed state is any place which “for one or another causes appears to the White House to be antagonistic” to the United States.

            Curiously, he continues, “many Russian politicians and analysts, despite all their antipathy to the United States nonetheless follow the American approach only within the borders of the post-Soviet space. They call all the states which have appeared there (except Russia, of course) ‘failed states,’ especiallyif the latter attept to carry out a policy genuinely independent of the Kremlin.”

            And this informs their view that even countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which have joined NATO and become members of the European Union are nothing mor than “’separatist provinces’” and thus should ultimately be re-absorbed by annexation and governed from Moscow.

            But that Russian understanding is misleading at a minimum.  According to last year’s index of failed states, Finland is the most “successful,” and Ukraine outranks the Russian Federation, something few Russian analysts, politicians or ordinary citizens are prepared to accept (

            There are many measures of state “success”and state “failure,” Shteppa continues, but one of the most important is the existence of a competitive electoral system that allows for the regular and non-violent transfer of power from one group to another. If one evaluates the post-Soviet states in these terms, it is clear that Ukraine is far ahead of Russia. 

Unlike Russia, Ukraine has had a series of real elections among competitive parties in which power has been transferred from one group to another with little violence.  Russia in contrast has been run by one group of people since 1991, has no effective opposition parties, lacks real elections, and has made ever more jobs appointive rather than elected.

Despite that, Ukraine still is at risk of falling into the ranks of the failed states.  Its unitary political system is a threat, “and even if the Russian annexation [of Crimea] had not taken place, pro-Russian attitudes have dominated in this republic since the first years of Ukrainian independence.”  And there is a risk that Moscow will succeed in blocking the May 25 vote.

But in terms of democracy which is the basis of longterm stability, Ukraine looks far more promising than Russia, Shteppa says. “In Russia alrady from the times of Yeltsin there was not a single case of genuinely free presidential elections – one and the same monarchical-successor scheme worked whch guaranteed completely predictable results.”

Moreover, recently, the Russian system has been radicalized into “a literal remake of “’Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer,” with the parliament little more than a decoration and with any opposition to Vladimir Putin viewed as “national betrayal.” Indeed, any discussion of a post-Putin future is considered a “heresy” about “the end of the world.”

Putin’s system may provide a little temporary stability while Ukraine may continue to be messy and troubled, especially if Moscow continues its intervention.  But Ukraine has in place the kind of system that can develop, modernize and transfer power without revolutionary disjunctions, while Russia does not.

That is a real achievement in Ukraine, and it is a real failure in Russia, a kind of state failure with the most profound and disturbing consequences for the future of that country and of those living around it..

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