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Margarita Balmaceda


Margarita M. Balmaceda is Professor of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University and Research Associate at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. Her latest book is Living the High Life in Minsk: Russian Energy Rents, Domestic Populism and Belarus’ Impending Crisis (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2014).

Seton Hall U, US



Draft: Not to be Cited Without Permission

Between “Elite Original Sin” and External Conditions: Ukraine’s Foundational Bargain and the Rent Swamps of the Post-Soviet Transition



Ukraine’s dire situation in mid-2015 – with a growing portion of its territory under separatist control or outright annexed by Russia, its currency in free fall and a bleak economic prognosis – has highlighted the dire effects of Russian aggression: without Russian military help, leaders in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” would not have been able to hold their ground for long. Russia’s resources, both military, economic, and covert ones, are incommensurably superior to those available to Ukraine. [1] At the same time, limitations in Ukraine’s ability to mount a matching response go beyond the issue of resources, and can also be traced back to longstanding weakness in the Ukrainian state.[2]  How to make sense of this weakness? This article engages this question from the perspective of the relative role of structures and actors in Ukraine’s post-independence state building. Approaching the issue from the perspective of the Ukrainian experience can also contribute to a deeper understanding of similar processes affecting the Soviet successor states as a whole.


Ukraine’s ability to respond to the external aggression it faced in 2014-2015 was greatly compromised by the chronic underfunding, lack of effective state control, and contested legitimacy of the very institutions entrusted with safeguarding the survival of the state. First among these are the armed forces and the police, where these problems can often be traced back to widespread corruption (see D’Anieri et al 1999, 248-249),[3] which also opened such institutions to infiltration by Russian intelligence.[4] Corruption or the perception of it also contributed to widespread lack of trust in the military, as reflected in tensions between volunteer battalions and the official army, and lack of popular trust in the latter.


Yet the military was far from the only institution facing a legitimacy problem. Widespread corruption in other institutions, such as the judiciary, could not but affect the level of loyalty the Ukrainian state ­­­– at least in the form it existed until 2014 ­­– could command from its citizens. The issue of citizen’s loyalty to a state is, indeed, a complex matter which should not be approached lightly. In the case of Ukraine, it also exhibits regional differences.[5] Moreover, a distinction must be made between trust in specific institutions or leaders in power at particular times, and the legitimacy of the state as a whole.[6]


Yet it is impossible to deny that such problems — at play throughout Ukraine’s entire post-independence period — also came to weaken trust in the state as a whole. Indeed, the blatant corruption and abuse of power evident under Viktor Yanukovich’s presidency (2010-2014) and which served as a rallying call in the Euromaidan movement can be seen less as an anomaly than as a development exposing pre-existing weaknesses (Kudelia 2012, 426) also present – if in milder form – in all post-1991 regimes. [7] (As will be discussed below, however, this does not imply a static picture of Ukraine’s development.)





[1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Symposium on “Ukrainian Foreign Policy @ Twenty,” Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University, April 23, 2012.


[2] Authors such as D’Anieri (2012, 454), echoing a two-level games argument, have argued that Ukraine’s weak state may actually help in resisting external pressure, as “in order for Ukraine as a whole to be effectively coerced, the government needs to submit to external pressure, and then it needs to bring the country along with it” which in “Ukraine’s case (…) has rarely been possible.” While this argument may hold true for attempts to influence Ukrainian policy-making to adopt certain policies and not others, it does not  hold true in situations (such as that in 2015) where the main aim of external influence is to weaken the state rather than to get it to adopt certain proactive policies.


[3] Examples of such corruption abound. For instance, in March 2015, at the height of operations against Russian-backed separatist forces, several high government officials were arrested for the purchase of fuel for government-owned vehicles at inflated prices in exchange for bribes. See The New York Times, 26 March 2015.


[4] The extent and high level of this infiltration was made clear by the arrest of over 300 “people working in the military sphere,” between the start of the conflict and early February 2015.


[5] For representative polls trust in various institutions, see the European Social Survey data online (


[6] In other words, the fact that many Ukrainians saw the military, the judiciary and/or entire regimes as highly corrupt or even illegitimate does not mean that they would call into question the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood; in the face of Russian aggression, most Ukrainian citizens have united to defend their country’s independence. 


[7] On society’s lack of  trust in government, as a longstanding issue also related to Soviet legacies, see  Taras Kuzio, "Twenty years as an independent state: Ukraine’s ten logical inconsistencies." Communist and Post-Communist Studies 45.3 (2012): 429-438.

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