COUP D'ÉTAT VS. REVOLUTION: THE SCOPES OF REGIME CHANGE LEGITIMACY IN UKRAINE
VAHE KHUMARYAN









While the world witnesses the outcomes of an uprising in Ukraine, the contrasting political reactions to them become deeper both within the Ukrainian society and internationally. The fact that the interpretation of the Ukrainian events became a cornerstone of international political crisis determines us to look deeper into the different perceptions of the Ukrainian regime change. Namely, it is important to understand how the overthrow of Yanukuvich’s government is being differently interpreted. The process around Ukraine is yet crucially uncertain and the new regime has not provided a considerable account of operation to let us reflect on its nature. However, it is still possible to analyze some of the consequences of the regime change and underline its basic characteristics. 

In this article I am going to present a certain theoretical framework of regime change, which I consider applicable to the Ukrainian case. This will allow us to evaluate some key interpretations of the Ukrainian regime change, which vary from a legitimate democratic manifestation of the public will to a coup d’état. Finally, I am going to answer the following question: what kind of different perceptions produce the diverse attitudes to events in Ukraine?

In the length of the history of independent Ukraine there was at least one other regime change realization attempt. The Orange Revolution brought new leadership into power. Despite the very negative memory of Yushchenko’s presidency in the Ukrainian society, it however introduced some major improvements in terms of some basic liberties, like freedom of speech and press. Besides that, later the transition of power to the Party of Regions was carried out without significant electoral violations. However, some observers agree on the fact, that throughout all the years of independence Ukraine has kept an extremely low level of institutional development. A brief observation of the Ukrainian political realties may give a clear vision of its available institutional assets (their failure), which could be a response to the mass manifestations in the very launch of Euromaidan.

Unlike the dominance of siloviki and other informal clans among state elites in Russia, Ukraine is more divided between different groups representing certain financial or business interests. Unlike more autocratic clan systems, in Ukraine the arena of interest clashes has been more visible and clearly projected to the political discourse. Moreover, in Ukraine there are numerous informal practices present, which are common for the whole post-Soviet area (for more details you may refer to: Alena V. Ledeneva, "How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business", Cornell University Press, October 2006).
By contrast to the misleading image of Yanukovich’s regime as a through authoritarian, which was willing to suppress both the basic human liberties and political participation, the situation in Ukraine before Euromaidan was quite moderate, when we compare it with the democratic progress in other post-Soviet states. First, a free TV channel broadcast exists in Ukraine, among which there are a number of shows conducting exclusively political debate. Apart from that, citizen journalism and internet channels are quite accessible in Ukraine.

However, what is more important, is how the state power is distributed administratively. According to Ukrainian legislative acts the state is divided into 27 units, among them 2 are cities of Kyiv and Sevastopol and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. However, the major part of the country are the 24 regions, which keep a certain level of autonomy. It is important to take into account that some regions were ruled by opposition by the time the protests in Kyiv and other areas erupted into a civil disobedience. This fact provided a strong springboard effect for the protesters. Even some local officials from the West of the country declared their solidarity with Euromaidan.

It is important to understand which were the broader causes and context of Euromaidan. In my opinion, the equilibrium of fair descriptions for Euromaidan is well presented by Anastasiya Ryabchuk, who characterizes the mass mobilization in Ukraine in its mature phase as "resistance to police violence and demands of better living standards associated with utopian visions of "Europe” and "democracy”.

Euromaidan is one of the cases where both two core factors of democratization - "elite pact” (for further details: Gretchen Casper, Michelle M. Taylor, "Negotiating Democracy: Transitions from Authoritarian Rule", University of Pittsburgh Press; 1 edition, June1996) and "mass mobilisation” do perform very visibly. However, these theories of regime change would be better applicable to the explanations of the failed democratization in the period between the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan. Below I am applying to a less conventional literature, which emphasizes the problems of the power transfer in the scope of revolutionary developments.
These notable features and the general data available to us draws a rough picture in understanding the recent Ukrainian case of regime change. However, there is a gap in the minds of everyone who generally follows the updates from Ukraine, provided with an absence of an authoritative qualification of the events.
It seems to be a very questionable argument, that the interpretation of the Euromaidan’s outcome as an illegitimate revolt of a right-wing minority is exclusively a privilege of Russian state-funded media. On the other hand, even the highest officials in Russia accept that there was a mass mobilization and, basically, there is a consensus within the civil society against the unskillful regime of Yankuovich.

From an academic perspective, it is yet difficult to define which element played a decisive role in the overthrow of the regime: the inability of certain figures to meet the demands of larger public, the loss of the exclusive legitimate right to apply force or maybe it is all about the institutional weakness of the whole system under the extensive pressure of socioeconomic circumstances.

What I assume possible though at the current level is to understand the different constructs and meanings of the media, state officials and experts, who give differentiated qualifications for the Ukrainian process.

The construct of the "Coup d’état” in relation to Ukrainian Revolution

The whole spectrum of opinions on Ukraine may be divided into two main groups. Whether the international community would incline to each of these – would bring two different outcomes for Ukraine. Whether the Ukrainian overthrow of government would be called a democratic revolution or cope d’état changes the very basics of policies towards Ukraine.

Coup d’état (coup of the state) is a term widely spread in relation to Ukraine in public discourse and media, especially among the criticists of Ukrainian uprising. It was first voiced in Davos by Mikola Azarov, still the prime-minister of Ukraine in January 2014, thus bringing up the issue, which was later well supported by Russian state-funded media. Coup d’etat became then the core interpretation of the seizure of Yanukovich’s government, and it was also approved by Yanukovich and Putin.

Coup of the state is a term traditionally bearing negative allegations about the fact of power change in the state. In the academic sphere, most of the studies relate the "military coup d’état”, which happened every now and then in the states of the third world in XX century. The broader conceptualizations may be found in the book by Edward Luttwak from 1979: "a coup consists of the infiltration of a small, but critical, segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder”. He also notes that the coup is by definition illegal.

To what degree these definitions may yet be applied to the Ukrainian parliamentarians voting to remove Yanukovich from presidency as news of his flee spread on February 22th?

While the legality of this step is contested, it is clear that it was more a symbolic gesture with the aim to take control over the violent situation in the streets. Political legitimacy is a longer path the new Ukrainian government should handle with, at least by the time free and fair democratic elections are held in the country. The nature of the provisional government in Kyiv, however, still needs to be clarified.

In his book Luttwak also notes, that the coup is usually politically neutral. The main goal of a coup is to provide and secure possibilities of power succession in the state. As it was already mentioned, the study of coups mainly concentrates on the cases where the "critical segment” are military elites. As we see in the Ukrainian case, there is no major political or military group, which presents itself as a neutral intermediary body. Moreover, the Russian state propaganda in its accusations is not much concrete, when it comes to definition of the coup. To finalize Luttwak’s approach, it is worth to add, that he put the formulation of future policies of the state not into causal dependence with the coup, but with the post-coup regimes (Mayer N. Zald and Michael A. Berger, "Social Movements in Organizations: Coup d'Etat, Insurgency, and Mass Movements", American Journal of Sociology Vol. 83, No. 4 (Jan., 1978), pp. 823-861).

The political figures of the current provisional government of Ukraine, such as Alexander Turchinov, Arseniy Yacenyuk, Arsen Avakov and others, are very famous actors of the political arena with a considerable background and relatively clear intentions. Another strong semi-civil and semi-political group is the "Praviy Sector” (The Right Sector) a right-wing nationalist organization, which is supposed to be the core player in Euromaidan organizational and self-defense activities. Praviy Sector as a semi-militarized group is a newcomer in the Ukrainian politics, however represents a broader range of ideologically close informal groups, parties, right-wing clubs and etc., which traditionally dislocate in the West of the country. While the political dimension of Euromaidan, namely Vitaly Klichko ("Udar” party), Arseniy Yacenyuk ("Batkivshchina” party of Yulia Timoshenko) and Oleg Tyagnibok ("Svoboda” party) do somehow participate in the formation of the provisional government, the Praviy Sector does not. However, in fact the letter is the main target of internal (east of the country, Crimea) and foreign (mainly Russian) criticism. Right Sector with its charismatic leader Dmitriy Yarosh are even compared to Hitler in their neo-fascist agenda.

This is the central notion of the Russian state position on Ukraine. As Russia claims Ukrainian "coup” being illegitimate the state propaganda works in the direction of disqualification of the whole popular movement (Euromaidan) in Ukraine. However, these are mostly superficial and selective bunches of information, presented merely for the sake of support to the Russian foreign policy.

Moreover, the term of "coup of the state” has transformed in the recent decades, and especially with the Arab Spring. While analyzing the Revolution in Egypt and overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Ozan Varol is suggesting a new term "democratic coup d’etat” (Ozan O. Varol, "The Democratic Coup d’État", Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2012). According to him, the classical academic approach towards the coups is entirely anti-democratic, and is not applicable to such cases as the Egyptian revolution as well as the role of military in Turkey. He then brings the main characteristics of the phenomenon, which could conclude into the coups, which are determined by democracy-oriented incentives. However, this approach as well draws too much attention to the military dimension of the coup elites.
Nevertheless, the latest argument changes the whole perspectives from which the coups of the state are perceived nowadays. Indeed, in some states the coup is legitimizing itself, when after a period of stronger upside-down regulations they provide good ground for democratic participations. In this regard, the extreme negative approach to any kind of social activity, mass mobilization or change of constitutional order, as it is perceived in Russia, stands alone in the global discourse even when it comes to such a traditionally "backward” phenomenon as the coup d’état.

As we can see the coup of the state is hardly applicable to the Ukrainian case, and serves as a broad label to the whole internal political process of Ukraine in order to challenge its legitimacy. From the Russian point of view, the "coup” label applied to a regime change in a certain country justifies its illegitimacy. However, within the scope of social science such terms as coup d’état or revolution do not necessarily bring up either positive or negative implications. Thus, back in 1963 Hanna Arendt was arguing that the Bolsheviks’ revolt might not be called revolution, because it had not brought positive change ("freedom”). However, until now there is no conceptualization of revolution as a positive or negative event. In a post-Soviet political discourse, the "coup” usually has critically negative meaning. Seizure of the current regime is called a coup or "putch”, when it is done by the use of hard power, namely the support of "power structures” (silovie strukturi). It is usually understood as illegal event, thus even many conservative circles within Russia had named the "putch” of August 1991 in Moscow as a coup d’état.

In Russia even the Arab Spring is often compared to the "infamous” Color Revolutions in the states, which Russia traditionally considered as its "zone of privileged interests”. Namely, the absolute importance of preserving countries’ sovereignty is usually stressed, implying the Western interference as a cornerstone factor, which brings the unrests. This conspirational approach indicates a certain degree of sensitivity towards any kind of civil movements and revolutionary processes in other states.

In order to conclude, we must indicate that the discourse over "coup d’état” in Ukraine is brought up by internal reactionist elites and is largely supported by the Russian state and state-funded media, provoking only skepticism in the West. However, in case of Russian propagandist and uncompromising position there is even a deeper dimension of constructs, which are related to the goal of satisfying the internal audience.

The overthrow of Yanukovich’s regime and coming of the provisional government to power in Kyiv, was followed by the active participation of right-wing groups and in the end was successful due to an illegal decision by Ukrainian parliamentarians. However, these consequences are just symbolic episodes of a large-scale protest in Ukraine, which brought to such results due to the inflexibility of the state-elites and the eruption of violence in the country. Nevertheless, these facts are exaggeratedly presented in the media and public discourse. The definition of "coup d’etat”, which is voiced by the Russian state officials in fact does not bring an extreme negative perception of the Ukrainian revolution, and are hardly justifying the Russian foreign policy toward Ukraine.

However it is important, to underline that there are two main dimensions, which serve as a ground for the Russian position on Ukraine: the misleading interpretations of the Ukrainian revolution based on selective arguments for the sake of short-term foreign policy support and the misleading perception of the "coup” as an evil circumstance itself, which takes its roots in the conservative stance of the current Russian state elites.
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6827 reads | 17.04.2014
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