On a recent trip to Ukraine for the Kiev Security Forum I asked some of the Ukrainian analysts whether Yanukovich will manage to become like Putin – a successful authoritarian leader able to retain firm political control for a long time. There is little doubt that Yanukovich would like to be like Putin and is trying to build a more or less similar system. But there are a number of differences. First, is that Ukraine does not have energy resources and Yanukovich therefore lacks the money to co-opt the elites and the public as widely as Putin could do.
But another important factor is how Putin and Yanukovich play their systems. Putin’s role in the Russian system is that of the ultimate arbiter between various elite groups. He is a moderator, not a player in the elite squabbles. He is not neutral, nor fair. During his presidency, his closest friends acquired vast assets, and there has been quite some redistribution of property. But Putin mainly tries to stay above the fray realising that this is an important power resource for him. This is how he makes himself indispensable to the multiple interests groups within the Russian elites. That is also why elites value him – he has the power and the skill to maintain some degree of balance between competing factions.
But Yanukovich seems to be different. He is less of a moderator and more of a player than Putin is. This is exemplified by the sudden appearance Yanukovich’s eldest son, Alexandr, on the list of the richest Ukrainians. His $100 million is not much by the standards of Ukrainian politics, but what caught the eye is that Alexandr was not known for being a successful businessman before and that he his bank had a 1800% growth in the last year, ie it multiplied its revenue by 18 times. There is also talk of the emergence of a ‘Yanukovich clan’ or ‘the family’ with a set of new names being promoted to positions of influence including the ministry of interior or the tax inspectorate. This is done at the expense of the other clans and oligarchs who supported Yanukovich and the Party of Regions for years and years. In other words, Yanukovich is not only bulldozing the opposition (with Timoshenko in jail and on hunger strike, as well as 3 other former ministers now jailed) but also pushing back against his older allies by building his own personal political and financial power base and promoting people who owe their rise exclusively to him personally. In some sense this might strengthen him, but it also can weaken if he chooses to become even more of player and potential competitor to his own networks of supporters, rather than the indispensable arbiter than Putin is.