ARCHIVES Danyliw Seminar 2017
University of Pennsylvania (US)
Mitchell A Orenstein is Professor and Chair of Russian and East European Studies at University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Out of the Red: Building Capitalism and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (2001). His current project is on the effects of geopolitical conflict on the lands in between Russia and Europe and the lessons for both new and old member states of the EU and the US.
Polarization and Power Brokers in Ukraine and
EU Eastern Partnership Countries
The European Union (EU) – and Russia’s rejection of it – has been at the center of the conflict in Ukraine. This paper asks how this geopolitical competition has affected the politics of Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries. It finds two seemingly contradictory trends. On the one hand, politics is increasingly polarized between pro-EU and pro-Russia parties and movements. On the other, the conflict has increased opportunities for high-level power brokers, such as oligarchs and presidents, to bridge this divide and gain resources from both sides. Simply put, while geopolitical competition has driven political parties to the extremes, it has left power brokers entrenched in the middle of the pro-EU/pro-Russia political spectrum.
This trend is particularly visible in Ukraine, where public opinion has sharply polarized between a pro-Europe majority and a pro-Russian minority. The war has inflamed this divide and pushed people to choose one side or the other. Political parties have followed suit, making clear a pro-EU or pro-Russia orientation, though articulations of pro-Russian positions are often left ambiguous because of the possibility of being viewed as disloyal to the state in a time of war. While the political environment has become more polarized, most Ukrainian oligarchs maintain links with both sides of the conflict, for instance sponsoring a pro-government militia but also seeking to maintain business ties with Russia. Oligarchs tend to support political parties, often multiple political parties, in order to maintain inter-temporal flexibility and deniability.
Other Eastern Partnership countries display similar trends. In Moldova, leading oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc heads the pro-EU Democratic Party, but also supports the larger pro-Russia Socialist Party, in order to maintain his grip on power. In Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili similarly prefers to remain a power broker behind the scenes, sponsoring a pro-EU government at the same time as enhancing business ties with Russia.
These trends, however, are not restricted to Ukraine or the Eastern Partnership countries. Geopolitical conflict between Russia and the West is driving political polarization in the new member states of the EU, core Europe, and the US as well. The Russia issue has become a central factor in US politics and was also a key factor in the French presidential election in 2017. It has further polarized an already polarized political scene as well as encouraging power brokers who maneuver between and seek resources from both sides.