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From Oligarchy to Democracy

Ukraine is getting ready for a presidential runoff vote, where a TV personality  and comedian Vladimir Zelenski will compete with the current president Petro Poroshenko.

The existing situation in the country shows how political and economic systems differ in the post-Soviet countries.

If we do not recall eastern dictatorial regimes, only 3 varieties of oligarchy will remain to discuss – Russian, Georgian and Ukrainian.

There is the erroneous perceptions that Vladimir Putin, having come to power, removed the oligarchic system and built a dictatorial regime of the eastern style. This is untrue.

Oligarchs never went extinct.  They maintain crucial political influence, manage whole regions, hold media agencies, have representatives in regional bodies of the authorities. Under the rule of  Vladimir Putin, the rules of the game were changed, and oligarchs were unconditionally subordinated to the supreme power. Staying devoted to Putin and the system, and you have full freedom in action.

The Georgian oligarchic model is absolutely different. The country is governed by an oligarch personally through his servants; however, unlike Russia, in Georgia, there are no signs of despotism. There is no dictatorial system, media agencies are not closed, political parties are not persecuted, and suffrage is not infringed.

The system under Bidzina Ivanishvili is not an axe – this is a marshland, where all anti-government initiatives sink, without violence and repressions.

There is no other oligarch in Georgia like Ivanishvili. The business sector in Georgia, even major business companies, do not strive to control the country. Domestic millionaires do not own media agencies, do not control political parties, and cannot control state institutions. Their political activity is focused on the the preservation in the Parliament of their business interests, nothing more.

Consequently, Georgia is a mono-oligarchic country, where only one person spends money and resources to maintain power.

And the third model – Ukrainian. This is a poly-oligarchy system in practice. There are several oligarchs, like Bidzina Ivanishvili in Ukraine, who possess almost the same amount of financial resources, media organizations and agencies. The most powerful oligarchs permanently struggle with each other, and use their own TV channels to this end. They control political parties and presidential candidacies. In practice, they govern the country. If Zelenski wins the elections, not Zelenski himself, but Igor Kolomoiski is supposed to rule the country in practice.

Naturally, it is not out of the realm of possibility that one of the elected presidents show disobedience to the oligarch. However, after this decision, he will become an ideal target – all financial resources, mass media, domestic government – and this  giant system will work to “spoil” him, and he won’t be able to do anything. Finally, the next election will come, and he will be defeated.

Discussion of these 3 systems does not lead one to excessive optimism.

Changes are absolutely ruled out in Russia as Putin remains in the power. Considering that he looks healthy and vigorous, he is expected to rule Russia for many years still.

The Georgia-based “mono-oligarchy” has its own advantages – it is comparatively democratic; it does not oppress freedom of speech, and follows comparatively honest rules of play. Strong centralization creates the preconditions for shaping well-functioned state institutions and establishing order in the country.

At the same time, today it is almost impossible to change power in the country. The value of consolidated property of all Georgian businessmen is lower than the property of Bidzina Ivanishvili. Consequently, he will always manage to buy the number of votes that he will need in elections, even more so as there are no other buyers of votes.

Naturally, the time will come when these methods will not work any more, but nobody knows when this will happen, and what situation in the country will exist.

Ukrainian poly-oligarchy is an absolute antipode of the Georgian system. There are several oligarchs, like Bidzina Ivanishvili, and none of them hasfull leverage over  governance, and this factor weakens the state and hinders the shaping efficient institutions. Even today, the weakened and volatile Georgian state is stronger than Ukraine, while the economy of Ukraine is stronger and more diversified than the Georgian.

At the same time, the fragility of the ruling power and permanent competition between oligarchs greatly simplifies the process of changing power.

In one word, no system works properly. Nothing changes in Russia for decades. The system seems to be working in Georgia, somehow, but universal civil heroism is required to change the authorities. As for Ukraine, it is easier to change power, but efficiency of these changes is zero – one oligarch goes, another comes, and nothing changes in the end.

The 30-year history of post-Soviet period has shown that there is no other model for progress than democracy. Without democracy both Georgia and Ukraine will remain among the outsiders.

By Tengiz Ablotia