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Archive for April, 2016

Survival of the Richest: How oligarchs block reform in Ukraine

By Blog Admin, on 30 April 2016

 

by Professor Andrew Wilson

This post originally appeared on the ECFR blog. Reproduced with kind permission of the Author.

The resignation of Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the elevation of Volodymyr Groisman demonstrates the failure of Kyiv’s reform process, and offers Europe an opportunity to push for deeper changes.

And while Ukraine suffers from many types of corruption, it is the penetration of its politics by the super-rich oligarchy that forms the main obstacle to reform.

Wealth is concentrated in few hands in Ukraine. Before the Euromaidan protests of 2013 the assets of Ukraine’s 50 richest individuals made up over 45 percent of GDP, almost five times as much as in the US. Politics in Ukraine is extraordinarily expensive, with campaign expenditures running at hundreds of millions of dollars. And oligarchical media ownership further strengthens the hold of the wealthy over Ukraine’s democracy.

The author highlights two key areas, the judiciary and Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises, where the nascent process of ‘de-oligarchisation’ has failed to take hold. Control over the courts means that there have been no high-profile leading figures from the Yanukovych era brought to trial. And Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises siphon off government funds to the pockets of oligarchs, providing further funds for them to control events in Kyiv.

The EU remains Ukraine’s only plausible ally and, as such, has the potential to wield a huge amount of influence over the reform process. Wilson highlights two main areas that European policy makers should focus on, both of which focus on decoupling the oligarchs from the political system, rather than attacking the oligarchy itself.

The first step should be to strengthen the pressure applied on the Ukrainian authorities from below, by local civil society. Engagement could take the form of encouraging the participation of Ukrainian NGOs in EU-Ukrainian government dialogue.

The EU and its member states should also pressure Ukraine’s leaders, who are perpetuating and in some cases directly benefiting from some of the worst practices of the Yanukovych regime. Abuses by oligarchs’ placemen in the state bureaucracy and others must be investigated.

 

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Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

 

The Post-Chernobyl Library

By Blog Admin, on 26 April 2016

On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Uilleam Blacker of SSEES considers the cultural impact of the nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine through the work of one of the country’s most famous poets, Lina Kostenko, and one of its leading literary critics, Tamara Hundorova. The post first appeared on the British Library’s European Studies blog. 

See Words Without Borders for Uilleam’s translations of two of Kostenko’s poems.

The Chernobyl disaster wasn’t just an unprecedented environmental disaster: it was an event that caused profound political and cultural shifts on a global scale. The disaster foreshadowed and accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War order, and the political reverberations of this were felt the world over. Yet it also forced a rethink of human beings’ relationship with the natural world, and compelling societies to face up to the fact that a nuclear apocalypse was no longer the stuff of science fiction, but a reality that was perilously close.

Kostenko Lina in ChornobylLina Kostenko near the Chornobyl  Nuclear Plant (From Encyclopedia of Ukraine)

For all of these reasons, the name Chernobyl – or to use more accurately its Ukrainian form Chornobyl – is a worldwide symbol of the disastrous climax of Western modernity. The Chornobyl Zone continues to function as a phantom, warning humanity of the dangers inherent in blind technological advancement, with endless images or drone films of the ghost town of Prypiat affording internet users the vicarious thrill of wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape. Western horror movies and video games take the Zone as their setting. Yet the real Chornobyl, the real Zone, with its real abandoned villages and its real locals – those displaced and those who stubbornly return – is less often the subject of Western reflection.

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US Election Awash in Virtual Realities

By Blog Admin, on 25 April 2016

by Professor Andrew Wilson

A decade ago, I wrote a book describing the ‘virtual politics’ of Eastern Europe. Many common patterns could be detected in all the post-communists states, but the paradigm was set by Russia, where the Kremlin had managed to create a world of puppets and fakes. Politics was not institutional, but theatrical, and its key principal was narrative control. The Kremlin determines a script, in Russian the dramaturgiia , that all the key players must follow, and whose carefully-staged ‘achievements’ are the basis of Putin’s super-ratings. In Russia, so-called ‘political technology’ has developed ever-broader forms since 2005. Peter Pomerantsev has even argued that the system requires ever-higher doses of drama; both the domestic Russian system and Russia’s tendency towards conflict with its neighbours is based on narrative escalation dominance, not on the conventional threat of military escalation.

Picture credit: Yale University Press

The West has different problems. The key parts of the political system are not fake; although there are some practices that Russians might recognise, like astroturfing  (running fake grassroots campaigns, and disguising the real sponsors of political messaging). Russians would also recognise the increasing abuse in US elections of what they would call ‘administrative resources’ – the resurrection of practices that were more common before the landmark Supreme Court judgements of the 1960s, particularly the abuse of redistricting powers by state legislatures and efforts to reduce the registration of minority voters.

But Russia’s would-be democracy has always been infected by ‘political technology’. In the West, the quality of democracy is under threat from technological and social change. The traditional institutions and formats of politics of the modern era, that predominated until roughly the 1980s, like political parties, broadsheet press and national TV news, are being disrupted by post-modern technologies. Moreover, new paradigms of social identity and new forms of social protest are replacing the agit-prop and door-knocking of party or trade union members with passive-aggressive activism or slacktivism. Virtuality, in the Western sense, is not an entirely fake democratic process, but the cumulative disruptive effect of technological and social changes that are now the tail wagging the democratic dog.

Donald

Nevertheless, the extraordinary 2016 US election has taken things a step further. But the election process has become more ‘virtual’ in several different ways. Many commentators have described the eruption of Donald Trump into the election as the victory of virtuality over reality, or of the takeover of reality by reality TV. According to Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone, for example, ‘the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience. Trump is making a mockery of the show’, but his critics have ‘all got it backward. The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line’. Politicians have been gradually turning into actors for some time, so why not a real ‘celebrity’ pretending to be a politician? (more…)

Too complicated to be trusted? Brexit, Europeanisation and Complexity

By Blog Admin, on 21 April 2016

By Filipa Figueira

As the Brexit debate rages throughout the UK, British people are clamoring for “facts” to help them decide. Yet neutral facts on the EU referendum seem hard to come by. “All I hear is opinions, but I want facts” scream, tweet and facebook the masses. So why are they not being given those?

Image Brexit FRINGE

The answer is that, when it comes to what will happen after the EU referendum, there are no facts …only forecasts. No-one can predict the future, and therefore no-one can tell what the economic growth rate of the UK will be if it leaves the EU, how many jobs (if any) will be lost, or what will happen to your grocery bill.

Economists will gladly provide you with estimates, but those are, well, estimates. Any minor change in the economic model used can produce a significantly different result, so it is no wonder that radically different numbers are being branded about, depending on the economist’s side of the campaign.

One of the key arguments of pro-Brexit advocates is precisely the difficulty that the average person has in understanding the EU. “Brussels” is seen as a mysterious labyrinth of hidden complexity, which cannot be understood – and therefore, cannot be trusted – by most Brits.

If may be of little comfort for them to hear that the EU labyrinth is hard to understand even for the EU officers who run it and for the EU scholars who study it. The EU is a moving target, a constantly changing animal, an entity forever evolving through what is known as the process of “Europeanisation”.

Europeanisation is any transformation that occurs because of the EU. This includes countries adapting their institutions to better deal with the EU, or to attract more EU funding. It also includes people feeling more European when they cooperate with other European countries – a process to which the UK appears staunchly impervious. And yes, it may include an increase in the scope of policymaking at EU level (reductions in that scope do happen as well, and can be called “de-Europeanisation”).

This is a constant process, and one which is by nature difficult to measure and define. The vast academic literature on Europeanisation struggles with this task, and usually ends up focusing on the more …academic question of defining what they mean by “Europeanisation”. Such a question can be endlessly debated, leaving academics with little time to actually research and clarify Europeanisation itself.

Could the Remain side argue that the undeniable complexity of Europeanisation is a point in its favor? Probably not. The leavers have it on this one. The question becomes, then, whether the added complexity is a worthwhile trade-off for the benefits of EU membership.

The public will not get facts on this – only those pesky forecasts – so they will need to use their brains. Why are all other European countries happy to put themselves through the

ambivalence and immeasurability of the EU labyrinth? Why is the debate about how many jobs will be lost after a Brexit, rather than about how many jobs will be gained?

An assessment based on common sense, rather than “facts”, shows where the trade-off lays. Europeanisation brings with it complexity and a loss of sovereignty on some policy areas. But on the other hand, it offers significantly better economic conditions and geopolitical clout, and spares the British economy from an (impossible to estimate) “uncertainty shock”.

As with any trade-off in life, the solution lies in finding the right balance. Clearly Brits do not wish to give away all their sovereignty, but neither do they wish to ruin their economy or face geopolitical isolation. So here is how things stand.

Image Brexit FRINGE 2

The current trade-off which the EU is offering involves a small loss in sovereignty (Britain retains control over all its key policies and all but a tiny percentage of its finances) in exchange for significant economic gains (being part of, and a key decision-maker within, the Single Market) and geopolitical benefits (being part of the continent’s decision-making, while remaining the United States’ most valued ally cum Trojan horse).

Will continuing Europeanisation disrupt this balance? That seems unlikely. A clear gap has emerged at EU level. On one side are the countries which are members of the Euro currency, and willing to accept deeper integration to guarantee its financial survival. On the other side are those, including the UK, which have decided to stay outside the Eurozone, and are clearly staying out of that process.

The only true result which David Cameron got out of his Brussels “renegotiation” was a guarantee that the UK could stay out of, and be unaffected by, that process (in fact that agreement was being discussed anyway, and would have been achieved with or without a “renegotiation” – but let us leave the Prime Minister’s theatrics out of this important discussion).

Europeanisation is, therefore, clearly moving towards a two-speed rhythm. Fast and bumpy for Eurozone members; slow and comfortable for more independent-minded countries such as the UK.

The trade-off on offer is a positive one for Britain, and about to get even better.

Whatever the result of the EU referendum, academics will carry on forever defining Europeanisation. Let us hope that Britain will still be a part of it.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

 

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UCL SSEES: Director’s Position on EU Referendum

By Blog Admin, on 12 April 2016

UCL SSEES: Director’s Position on EU Referendum

Prof Jan Kubik, Director of UCL SSEES offers his personal opinion on Brexit

Personal opinion on Brexit

The debate about whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union is heating up. When June comes, it will be up to individuals to cast their votes according to their own conscience. Nevertheless, in the meantime, it makes sense to assess the balance of advantages and disadvantages that any eventual outcome would bring and to take a position accordingly. I believe that it is better for Britain to remain and I am committed to making the case for Britain’s continued membership of the EU.

It is hard for me to see a net advantage of Brexit for an institution like SSEES. As has been made clear by several studies, summarized by Universities for Europe, Brexit would deal a tremendous blow to the British university sector and its remarkable intellectual prowess, its institutional dominance, and its strong financial performance. The first two of these would diminish as a result of disruption to deep and extensive networks of academic cooperation; the last would suffer from the resultant reduction of student mobility in Europe. SSEES would be hit particularly hard here: our School is proud to attract many students from Europe (around 37% of our current undergraduates come from other EU countries) and to have a strong network of European partners and collaborators. Such networks of cooperation, built up over the years, are costly to repair, once disrupted. Some partnerships may simply collapse. For these institutional reasons alone, I am compelled to take an anti-Brexit position.

But the most important arguments against Brexit are not financial or institutional, but historical and philosophical. The EU is key among those institutions that restored peace and prosperity to Western Europe after the Second World War and, in the decades since, it has provided an effective counter-balance to the ‘darker’ forces that have torn the continent apart so many times in the past. More recently, the EU played an important part in the political and social unification of Europe through the accession of the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. These states and societies have become beneficiaries of the common Europe, while also contributing increasingly to the EU’s success as a whole. Central and East Europeans have experienced only too well the damage wrought by European divisions in the past; as an expert on Central and Eastern Europe, I cannot be in favour of a reversal in the process of integration. Furthermore, I note and condemn the xenophobic rhetoric, directed largely against Central and East Europeans, that plays a part in much Brexit campaigning.

The European project, always evolving and never perfect, has recently come under tremendous strain. Europe faces many tests, among them the rise of right-wing populism that openly challenges the liberal-democratic culture that has been its hallmark. Brexit would signal the fact that that a key European power believes that the project is no longer viable and Eurosceptic and populist parties would be emboldened. As Director of an educational and research institution of humanities scholars and social scientists, I wish to warn against a political act whose economic outcomes would be uncertain, and whose longer and broader implications would certainly damage the delicate tissue of a hard-won European culture of coexistence.

I express here my personal opinion, developed as result of many days of thinking and discussions about our institution, UCL SSEES, about which I care deeply. I invite all colleagues to share their views on our blog and – even more importantly – to encourage our students to vote!

 

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

 

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