Paul Manafort is not responsible for Yanukovych’s abuse of power

Following the 2010 presidential election in Ukraine, which saw Victor Yanukovych prevail over Yulia Tymoshenko, Anne Applebaum wrote in Slate:

The only thing that has remained consistent over the past four years is the democratic process itself… Six years after the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian political culture remains open, unpredictable, and interesting — so much so that formerly prominent Russian journalists have now moved to Kiev to ply their trade. “The difference between Russian politics and Ukrainian politics,” one of them told the New York Times, “is the difference between a cemetery and a madhouse.”

After praising Ukraine’s political culture, Applebaum wrote that Yanukovych’s election was a logical, democratic, legitimate outcome:

…Two parliamentary elections and one presidential election have been held since the Orange Revolution, and he has won them all. The Ukrainians are not an illogical people: The only real advantage of democracy is that it enables people to throw out leaders they don’t like. When the various “orange” coalitions failed to deliver the expected reforms, the Ukrainians took full advantage of their voting power to throw them out. Anyone else would do the same.

When Franklin Foer is demonizing Paul Manafort for helping Yanukovych to get elected in 2010, his judgment is colored by the events of the 2013-14 revolution and by the knowledge we now have, or believe we have, about the inner strings and purses of Ukrainian politics. A foreign consultant cannot be expected to have known but a small fraction of all this in 2009-10. Foer cites Der Spiegel on Yanukovych:

Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, served the commercial interests of an oligarch with whom he has close ties — at the expense of his own country. And, in doing so, he also did Moscow a favor.

Well said. The same applies to about every pre-Maidan president and PM of Ukraine, including Yulia Tymoshenko. Actually, the Spiegel piece had a narrow focus: it accused Yanukovych of changing Ukraine’s position at the arbitration proceedings in Stockholm to accommodate Firtash. Most importantly, it looked into events after the January-February 2010 election: Manafort played no part in them.

Perhaps the perfectly ethical choice in 2010 would have been to stay away from Ukraine altogether. But if one had to pick sides in the 2010 presidential election in Ukraine, one would have to choose between Tymoshenko, a corrupt statist with strong ties to Moscow, and Yanukovych, a corrupt politician of no particular persuasion with strong ties to Moscow.  Tymoshenko was the smart, pseudo-Westernized populist; Yanukovych, the not-so-smart, redneck populist.

Manafort picked Yanukovich and won – in a political culture that was “open, unpredictable, and interesting” according to Applebaum.

Fair enough for me. Manafort did not advise Yanukovych on how to eviscerate his country’s shaky institutions, not could be certain Yanukovych would choose that course. Foer is suggesting to the reader, by analogy, that Trump would destroy the institutional foundations of American democracy with Manafort’s help, à la Yanukovych. Any buyers?

All this does not cancel out the properly troubling part of the profile, with names like Jonas Savimbi. That’s a very different kind of monster, bloodier than anyone involved in Ukrainian politics.


  1. Yanukovich is Putin’s puppet. And today Trump is the candidate for the US presidency Putin backs. Manafort centrality to both Trump’s and Yanukovich’s campaigns demonstrates that the Putin – Trump love fest has been going on for a better part of a decade. Trump’s gushy adoration of Putin is neither a fluke nor a mistake, as some naive folks are saying. It’s a long-time, consistent ideological closeness.

    • Honestly, I don’t see much common ideological ground between the two, since they operate in completely different political, social and economic environments. I tend to believe that Putin is simply seeking maximum destabilization everywhere in the West. He is probably hoping for violent clashes between Trumpists and anti-Trumpists and, further down the road, for US politics to become completely tribalized.

      The central issue motivating Trump’s base – the relative impoverishment and decline of the native-born working and lower middle class, blamed on immigration and free trade – was noted more than 20 years earlier, among other observers, by Edward Luttwak in “The Endangered American Dream: How to Stop the Third-Worldisation of America.” His follow-up 1994 article in The London Review of Books had the alarming title, “Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future.” While Luttwak got a lot of his details wrong, he pointed out “the central problem of our days: the completely unprecedented personal economic insecurity of working people, from industrial workers and white-collar clerks to medium-high managers.”

      Responding to Luttwak back then, a Canadian economist noted that victorious fascism would be impossible without at least some support from big business, while Main Street was about as globalized as Wall Street and therefore utterly uninterested in the welfare of American workers. That was also prescient of today’s fear and loathing of Trump at corporate HQs.

      Where does Putin enter this? Did he send advisers to explain American reality to Trump?

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