A paper installation depicting white pigeons at a memorial for those killed in recent violence in Kiev, February 25, 2014.
A paper installation depicting white pigeons at a memorial for those killed in recent violence in Kiev, February 25, 2014.
Konstantin Chernichkin / Courtesy Reuters

The gist of Ukraine’s Euromaidan was aptly summed up in leaflets recently distributed around Kiev that featured a big X over former President Viktor Yanukovych’s crown-bedecked head. Indeed, current events in Ukraine bear more in common with Europe’s anti-monarchical grassroots uprisings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than with more recent rebellions. The Ukrainian protesters’ primary motives were not nationalist grievances or democratic yearnings but popular repulsion at the unconstrained, arbitrary, and corrupt power of an absolutist sovereign and his retinue.

In the seventeenth century, Europe’s absolutist monarchs faced no institutional constraints and could exercise power unilaterally. Neither parliament nor the court could overrule their judgments. And not only was power concentrated in the hands of the ruler but the rest of the “government” was designed to serve his or her needs. The monarchs formed their courts out of coteries of loyal minions who received exclusive access to privileges and rents, including noble titles and life-long public offices. These officials could, in turn, redistribute some of their private goods among their own servile lieutenants, but the monarch retained ultimate power to grant or revoke their privileged status.

Of course, such absolutist regimes were greatly varied, which, as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama noted in The Origins of Political Order, affected the patterns of their subsequent transformations. A stronger absolutism, which evolved in Russia, presumed the full subordination of different social groups to the monarch and an absence of space for autonomous action. Its stability depended on the coercive dominance of a single actor. So, for centuries, Russian emperors brutally suppressed rebellion at the first sign of it. In doing so, they managed to avoid the revolutionary upheavals that shook monarchs across Europe. The Bolshevik revolution succeeded only after the imperial court imploded from within.

By contrast, eighteenth-century France developed a weaker absolutism. The system was more decentralized and more dependent on the compliance of provincial elites, whom the king had to buy off. Weak absolutism thus required a balance of power between the king and the rent-seeking coalitions around him, with neither side dominating. Yet existing institutional checks, such as the Estates General and the courts, eventually proved ineffective in constraining the king and his aristocratic coalition. The non-nobles, as a result, had to bear the entire burden of paying for the state and the tax-exempt ruling class. The French Revolution thus started as a popular uprising against all elites.

Fast-forward a few centuries. Yanukovych entered his presidency to greet an empowered parliament, strong oligarchic cliques, and established traditions of patrimonial government. The system was ripe for absolutism, but not necessarily the old Russian model of strong absolutism. Namely, internal regional pluralism, a vigorous civil society, and prior experience with social mobilization acted as safeguards -- and paved the way for recent events.


In September 2010, a few months after Yanukovych’s election, he pushed for a return to the presidential system (Ukraine had had a mixed system), which formalized his dominance over the legislature and the executive branch. Regional ties to his native Donetsk or personal ties to his family became two of the main criteria for government appointments. By September 2013, officials from Donbas, the metropolitan area that contains Donetsk, controlled half of all government ministries, including the lucrative energy ministry and the interior ministry, and occupied high-ranking positions in two-thirds of the country’s oblasts. (Officials representing Yanukovych’s family interests were in charge of the ministries with the largest rent-seeking opportunities, such as tax collection and duties, and oversaw the security apparatus.) Allies also held 40 percent of top jobs in the country’s prosecutorial agency and 60 percent in the highest economic court. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s venal bureaucracy, which had gone largely unreformed since the Soviet times, was all too happy to settle into the president’s personal rent-collecting entourage.

Yanukovych fully subordinated the judiciary and opposition through coercion and reshuffling. The show trials of opposition leaders, rare even in Ukraine’s tumultuous recent history, raised the costs of opposition activity to new highs. Major businessmen who had previously supported the more Western-oriented opposition had to switch their loyalties or risk their property. They were under siege in another respect as well: Yanukovych privatized major state assets and had his son or front companies buy them, thus expanding his family’s holdings. He redistributed budgetary funds within his close circle through rigged government contract bids. The companies of his main oligarchic allies, Rinat Akhmetov and Dmytro Firtash, and of his son received more than half of the total value of contracts awarded over the previous two years (about 18 billion dollars).

Yanukovych’s increasingly absolutist rule led to a gradual change in the power balance within the ruling coalition. Like other absolutists, once Yanukovych marginalized the opposition, many of his former allies became the next targets on the list. One of them, Valery Khoroshkovsky, a multimillionaire and former security service chief, fled to London. Others, including old Donbas cronies, just fell out favor as the amount of money available for Yanukovych to give out decreased. Eventually, he encroached too far on the property rights of some of its members. His unilateral withdrawal from the talks with the European Union over an Association Agreement, which most Ukrainian oligarchs had strongly favored, was the last straw in a bundle of arbitrary maneuvers that threatened their business interests.

Although many expected it, however, an open oligarchic revolt, along the lines of the Fronde against Louis the XIV in France, never happened. Although some elites offered indirect support to the opposition, including  billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskiy, key businessmen remained loyal to Yanukovych until his final days. Like in other weaker absolutist states, as grassroots groups on the streets of Kiev and other cities tried to force Yanukovych out, the state institutions and his support coalition remained largely intact. The ruling Party of Regions stuck together and stalled the opposition’s initiatives in the parliament, including by adopting tough sanctions on protesting. Similarly, the court system, which played a crucial role in settling the Orange Revolution, remained subservient, jailing numerous protesters. Finally, there were no major defections from within the security apparatus. The top brass followed Yanukovych’s orders until the day he fled Kiev.

Such elite loyalty might seem particularly surprising; as political scientist Milan Svolik has shown, betrayal by regime insiders has been the leading cause for the fall of autocratic rulers since the end of World War II. Yet it had precedents, particularly in states where the composition of the ruling elite was based on kinship ties, tribal loyalties, or, like in eighteenth-century France, an exclusive patrimonial relationship. Despite long-lasting unrest on the streets, Yanukovych was able to hold his regime together for a long time thanks to the clientelistic web of personal dependencies and individual insecurities that he had learned to exploit so well. Political and financial backing from Russia also helped Yanukovych avert impeding economic disaster, which could have accelerated his regime’s collapse. As a result, once the regime started to sink, most of the crew waited for the captain to jump first before following his lead.


Yanukovych’s biggest weakness, and the source of his ultimate demise, proved to be his inability to establish authority over central and western Ukraine, including Kiev, which had voted for his opponents in the 2004 and 2010 elections. Over 80 percent of protesters on the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, arrived from these two regions. During his years in office, Yanukovych showed little sensitivity to their views, often adopting educational and cultural policies that were inimical to them. The last of those was his reversal on Ukraine’s commitment to integrate with the European Union, which had been endorsed by overwhelming majorities in these regions. That move served as a trigger for protests, but it was the authorities’ subsequent heavy-handed attempt to suppress riots that really fueled the uprising. According to the polls conducted over the last three months, two-thirds of protesters consistently named the government’s harsh repression of protesters as the main reason for their own decision to come out to the Maidan. Less than afifth named authoritarianism or integration with Russia as motives.

Unable to contain the revolt spreading through hostile regions, Yanukovych tried to use yet more lethal force in Kiev. Violent escalation, including random killings of protesters by snipers, only served to reinforce the impression of absolute power gone wild and strengthen the key motivation for opposing it. With two remaining options -- ordering mass bloodshed or surrendering his powers -- Yanukovych recognized the limits of his loyal troops and signed a deal with the opposition to shift most of his formal powers to parliament. This also sealed his fate. The moment the agreement was finalized, the coercive basis of his rule crumbled.

Yanukovych’s fate was similar to those monarchs -- including Louis XVI -- who either failed to self-limit their powers or attempted to cling to them against all odds. Yanukovych successfully destroyed institutional constraints and subordinated other elites. But he underestimated what violence against citizens would do to his system. Although nationalist or democratic ideals played a role in motivating some protesters, it was ultimately their shared belief in the need to punish the sovereign’s transgressions that united them. And it is this public commitment to the principle of restrained power that puts Ukraine on a democratic path, which many other European states traveled long ago.

It will take years for Ukraine to put all the institutional pieces of the democratic puzzle in place. Although the country has revived parliamentary primacy, it still lacks rule of law, genuine political parties, and a meritocratic civil service. Just like many other states exiting weak absolutism, it also has a parasitic, interconnected political class, which is very good at using populism and predation to prosper. The immediate challenge for Ukraine will be to cleanse itself of these vestiges of the past and start building from scratch those state institutions that would make its democratic progress irreversible. And if Ukraine’s new political leaders are ever tempted by absolutism, they should think back to this month and to the people’s spirit of resistance, which Yanukovych failed to heed. Ultimately, Ukraine’s future will depend on the will of citizens rather than the opportunistic choices of elites. And it will be much more secure because of that.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now