Interview about Ukraine and Russia with Bálint Magyar, Bálint Madlovics and other contributors of CEU Press' open access books

January 15, 2024

We sat down with editors Bálint Magyar and Bálint Madlovics, as well as contributors Mikhail Minakov, Oksana Huss and Kálmán Mizsei to talk about the new books published about the Russia-Ukraine war. Ukraine’ Patronal Democracy and the Russian Invasion and Russia’s Imperial Endeavor and Its Geopolitical Consequences continue the line of CEU Press publications that dissect the structural evolution of post-communist regimes. This time, the edited volumes showcase local experts that give additional insight to the Ukrainian and Russian situation.

Bálint Magyar, Bálint Madlovics, Oksana Huss, Mikhail Minakov, Kálmán Mizsei

How do two Hungarian scholars sitting in Budapest at the CEU Democracy Institute come to publish a book about Ukraine and Russia? Can you tell us about your research and the motivation behind your books?

Bálint Magyar: My first book about the Hungarian post-communist mafia state had some feedback that even if it was about Hungary, the descriptive language used can tell other countries’ stories as well. So, I gathered a group of Eastern European researchers for an edited volume, Stubborn Structures, where the model was spread to other post-communist regimes. This was followed by two theoretical works, The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes and A Concise Field Guide to Post-Communist Regimes, which we wrote together with Bálint Madlovics.

We were not content with the mainstream political science that explained the functioning of post-communist regimes. Several axioms had to be dissolved while building our models and defining a new language to describe structural phenomena. Firstly, we believe that the spheres of social action: the political sphere, the economic sphere and the communal sphere cannot be separated in most post-communist regimes because relations are not necessarily formalized and transparent. Secondly, the de jure position of persons and institutions in these regimes do not coincide necessarily with the de facto position. And the third such assumption what we had to abandon is that the state is an actor pursuing common good per definition and either public policy mistakes or corruption cases are not system constituting elements but simple deviances of these regimes.

We got to the conclusion that the main defining element of these regimes is informality, namely that the decision making is taken from formal institutions into informal ones.

Based on this, we made a distinction between democracies and defined liberal democracies and patronal democracies. Patronal democracy means that under the cover of formal political parties, patron-client networks compete with each other without the possibility that any of them could subjugate the others or liquidate the others and gain monopolistic power. In the case of autocracies we made differentiation between conservative autocracy and patronal autocracy which means that in the case of patronal autocracy a patron-client network creates a single-pyramid patronal network, subjugating or liquidating the rival patron-client networks.

And when I started to investigate the Hungarian situation, I realized that Hungary became a kind of patronal autocracy and mafia state. Ukraine, however, cannot be described as a mafia state, a term that we use for f.e. Russia, but as a patronal democracy. The difference is that in the latter there isn’t a single-pyramid network but there is pluralism, there are numerous networks and none of them have total control over the whole state. It is important to have a proportionate election system to make it impossible for a single political force to gain supermajority in the parliament and be able to change the constitution, all the laws or even appoint all the heads of the institutions. The second constraint is divided executive power.

Such institutional constraints make it almost impossible that a patronal democracy could evolve into a patronal autocracy. But there are attempts by the ruling patronal network to try to expand their power and authority. The autocratization process can create a democratization opposition movement where the movement is supported by rival oligarchic structures or rival patron-client networks. In case of the Ukraine, the color revolutions after Kuchma and after Yanukovych started a democratization process in the level of political sphere, but this democratization process was not accompanied by anti-patron transformation.

Bálint Madlovics: This theoretical framework of patronalism, of patronal democracy, patronal autocracy and regime cycles lays the foundations for the new books. We tried to adhere to a strict conceptual coherence and we involved several Ukrainian authors. We asked them to use this framework to the tell the case of Ukraine and analyze how the war might change patronal democracy.

The main challenge for Ukrainian democracy for three decades was regime cycles: autocratic attempts were followed by color revolutions and democratic transformation, but as the rival patronal networks survived, politics continued to be dominated by them. So after the ruling network was defeated, another one came into power, and the whole process started again. We examine how these networks and the oligarchic structures are affected by the war and whether it is possible that after the war Ukraine might break out of these cycles and move toward another kind of regime, preferably liberal democracy.

In the first volume, there is a chapter about oligarchs and the oligarchization. How can we interpret Zelensky’s pre-war governance in the context of patronal politics?

Mikhail Minakov: When we use the above-mentioned conceptual approach, we describe Ukraine as a patronal democracy or “republic of clans” if you wish. Since the end of ‘90s when the clans came together, they lived through several cycles. From political crisis that would lead to Orange Revolution and another cycle from the Orange Revolution to Euromaidan.

Zelensky is a figure that comes into power by fighting oligarchs representing a group of young, strange and unusual politicians, activists who are not connected to any clan. He comes as a champion of Ukrainian hopes that we can stop the self- undermining cycles of the patronal democracy. Zelensky is voted for and supported by the rich and the poor, by Eastern Ukrainians and Western Ukrainians, by those who live in cities and also in rural areas. He is really a person around which there was some strange, unusual consensus created. Ukrainians are a vibrant society with many different ideologies and groups, and we rarely organize ourselves around someone or some movement with more than 70%. So, in a way, this was an electoral revolution.

When Zelensky comes to power, he immediately tries to change the political system with many unusual initiatives supported by unusual power structure. None of the presidents ever enjoyed this kind of support and the stable one-party rule provided him and his administration with an opportunity to carry out what the editors mentioned, an anti-patronal transformation. However, already after several months, especially in winter 2019-20, you can see that public scandals supported by oligarchic media started ruining the major capital of Zelensky, his rating. Around March 2020, in the wake of a pandemic, he meets with oligarchs, and it looks like he created a certain pact on not starting conflicts. This existed for some time until the next big pre-war period when Zelensky reinvents the Council of Security and starts using it as a tool against oligarchic clans. You can see how de-oligarchization goes on, but it does not go hand in hand with the fight of patronal politics. That's a new situation, quite unusual situation for post-Soviet times.

So can you tell us a bit about how Zelensky uses the war or rather how he uses this opportunity to go on with the anti-patronal agenda?

Bálint Madlovics: If you just look at the news and especially if you read this volume, it would seem that the war would accelerate the de-oligarchization process. Zelensky, who gains popularity and who presents the war as a national issue tries to involve various groups of society, he gets such support and especially such political power with the state transforming, going into war mode, that he can use in his anti-patronal agenda. And as the war strengthened anti-patronal forces, it weakened the oligarchic structures in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian state at war cannot afford corruption. This is the meaning of the corruption scandals and Zelensky dismissing high-ranking officials. Of course, corruption causes large losses to the budget and undermines the effectiveness of the war machinery, but the key issue here is trust. A patriotic war can only be built on the trust that the state must maintain towards civil society and the population, as well as towards foreign donors. All these actors must be ensured that their efforts will not ultimately serve corrupt, oligarchic ends. This is yet another factor that drives the regime in an anti-patronal direction.

Mikhail Minakov: De-oligarchization survived the crisis connected to the beginning of the war. The de-oligarchization policy in the conditions of the war and with a functioning anti-corruption system is indeed destroying the established patronal networks in Ukraine. This means that many clans and relevant patronal networks will cease to exist. We already see how military actions against major industries belonging to the clans and anti-oligarchic policies together undermine the presence of oligarchs and the members of clans in the executive sphere and in the parliament. But the question is, will the destruction of the multi-pyramid patronal network mean the end of patronal politics? Currently, the country’s political development is at the moment of fatal choice between further construction of public politics based on the rule of law, basically what we call liberal democracy, or the transition towards a single-pyramid political system, basically an autocracy.

The latter path may be tempting for Zelensky’s team in current conditions of war, with the centralization of power, full control over mass media and the discipline of martial law. Here we may see that we accept single-pyramidal logic in exchange for victory and fast economic recovery. However, Ukraine and its ruling group are in much different situations than Russia in 2002-2007, when the single-pyramid network was developed there. In the war against the aggressive Russia, Ukraine stands together with Western democracies with a rule of law based European Union, which provides us with necessary resources to fight. And this support may critically decrease chances for Ukraine to opt for non-democratic choice.

You have talked about the elites and Zelensky and how his fight with the oligarchs is going on, but how does this look in a bottom-up perspective? How does this look from the side of Ukrainian society? In the first volume, you speak about “the change of social contract” in Ukraine in the context of anti-corruption policies; what does this mean?

Oksana Huss: Politics are responsive to what comes as a demand towards the political system and then delivers public goods if the demand comes from the society. But if the oligarchs are posing this demand, the outcome is very different because the whole machine is working towards generating the income for the groups of interest. This used to be business as usual in Ukraine until 2014 when the revolution took place. What changed after? It’s not that the oligarchs got less influence, but that additional groups also got to define politics, especially civil society. Moreover, this influence of civil society was not reduced to the elections, but it reached the decision-making process; civil society got a strategic role. In 2014, over 120 organizations came together under an umbrella organization and defined which reforms need to be implemented in the country and how to bring them. This mechanism showed the way to how to push for a qualitative change in decision-making and resulted in a couple of important reforms, for example the anti-corruption and the decentralization reform.

This change in the social contract means that society gets ownership of the state, and they also learned how to exercise this influence in politics. This might be very common in liberal democracies, but rare for a post-Soviet country, where there was 70 years of pressure for citizens not to engage in politics. If someone engaged, they were punished. This affects education, it affects political culture, it affects everything. And after 70 years of this regime, including over two decades of patronal democracy, you have a qualitatively new situation where society finally learned and took the initiative.

Bálint Madlovics: We, in this volume about Ukraine, really try to be comprehensive. We describe the political system, the economic system and society as well. Beyond Oksana’s chapter there are two others, one is by Csilla Fedinec, on the civil volunteer movement in Ukraine. A team of Ukrainian authors: Evgenii Golovakha, Kateryna Ivashchenko-Stadnik, Oksana Mikheieva and Viktoryia Sereda wrote about the change of the national identity of the Ukrainian people and describe in sociological terms how fragmented this identity was, what problems there were before the war. Of course, there are still problems, but the whole landscape is changing, and patronal, post-Soviet identity is becoming less and less important as a national civic identity is being developed.

Oksana, you also write about the role of NGOs and initiatives like ProZorro, which seem to be very effective and unique. Can you talk about successful anti-corruption organizations from the side of civil society in Ukraine?

Oksana Huss: You mentioned the ProZorro system. This is one of the leading systems worldwide that provides transparent public procurement. This is a digital platform where the state can buy things or order some services from the private sector. There is data about all the transactions and it provides radical transparency. The other unique factor is that the system has been developed by civil society organization together with businesses and not by the state. Now a state-owned enterprise manages the platform, but data is transparent and activists trained by Transparency International analyze how corruption in public procurement is adjusting. The community monitors processes and it works together with AI to find red flags of corruption. This is a really nice example of engaging civil society and using technology.

Bálint Madlovics: Now, if I start moving towards the second volume, which is on Russia’s imperial endeavor and the geopolitical consequences, actually it contains a comparative analysis of Russia and Ukraine’s ways of war. It is written by Hungarian expert András Rácz, and what he says is relevant here because he contrasts Russia’s socially exclusive warfighting with Ukraine’s socially inclusive warfighting. While Putin frames the war as a “special military operation” and intensifies the coercive subjugation of society, moving his regime from towards dictatorship, Ukraine and Zelensky frames it as a national issue and tries to involve various groups of society. What Oksana just told us is also an example, and of course we could go on with examples of how Ukrainian civil society is being activized during the war as well. And the socially inclusive warfighting involves alliance-seeking behavior as opposed to isolation in the international scene, which is also analyzed from different angles by various studies in the second volume.

The EU accession of Ukraine and Moldova is on the table. What are the main pitfalls that the EU should avoid based on the experience of previous countries, especially of post-communist countries? Is the current EU approach appropriate for the case of Ukraine?

Kálmán Mizsei: First, I am very happy that Ukraine and Moldova have gotten the candidate status. Regardless of the war, I would always think that for these European countries the right incentive is to give them the EU membership perspective, but then be very, very hard-headed in assessing the implementation of the conditions for them. However, sometimes people and understandably also the Ukrainian leadership, mix up things a little bit.

The main security provider is and should be NATO in this region and I am very much in favor of a robust accelerated process also with conditionalities but with slightly less troubling conditionalities than for the European Union. After all, Turkey is a member of NATO without the perfect rule of law and democracy credentials. I am not saying that Ukraine should be invited with such performance, but Ukraine is performing already much better as Oksana and Mikhail have explained. So, NATO membership should be a priority and particularly the United States but also the Europeans should not be afraid of Russian reactions. That’s important because the EU is primarily not a security club. Of course, it does contribute to security, but the primary provider is NATO. The EU is primarily a rule of law club.

What is critically different in Ukraine and Moldova relative to the previous countries, is the role of the law and the role of informality in the life of society. The reforms needed really cannot stop at legislation and anti-corruption action should not stop at persecuting corrupt people. The popular perception is that you have to put the thieves in prison. Yes, you have to, but it’s extremely important to also work out positive incentives, reward officials and the representatives of the rule of law sector, judges, prosecutors, so that the incentive to steal is less. Otherwise you just create new institutions, thinking in a Western mindset that problems can be solved if there is a dedicated body to solve them, and they will be just as corrupt as the institutions they should control.

The other critical issue to address is deregulation. If you have less regulatory opportunity for theft, you have less theft. In Georgia after the Rose Revolution deregulation was very radically implemented and should be a very important vehicle here as well.

Lastly, the EU has to have a strategy of what are the priorities that will trigger systemic change in these patronal regimes. The Ukrainian civil society has gained an enormous experience with change management and their experiences have to be considered when negotiating. Overall, it's right that the negotiations have started, but it has to be a long process. It is not enough to say that you have to adopt the EU legislation and that's it. The EU has to rethink its accession procedure to avoid the pitfalls of previous accessions. The reforms in the rule-of-law direction must be prioritized, for the sake of Ukraine and Moldova just as much as for the EU.

Bálint Madlovics: So, I think if I want to get the essence of what you’re saying, the EU should become an agent or a facilitator of anti-patronal transformation. It should first understand what is going on in Ukraine, get this authentic understanding with the involvement of local experts, but then it has to adjust its own methods and criteria, to deal with the real issues.

Actually, with these volumes with Bálint Magyar, we had the desire to really focus on the real issues. Luckily, with our over 30 contributors, many Ukrainian authors, we could analyze why Ukraine was not a liberal democracy but a patronal democracy and what this means, what the problems are. When we are assessing various actors, be they Zelensky and the government, as Mikhail explained, be it the civil society, as Oksana explained, or be it the external actor from the side of the EU, as Kálmán explained, we look at how they contribute or how they can contribute to anti-patronal transformation in Ukraine. This is our main agenda.

In the second volume which discusses changes in Russia, we elaborate on how the Russian system moves from an archetype of patronal autocracy into a more dictatorial way, and how it moves out of informality to semi-formal structures and how the formal structures are becoming stronger there. There are also chapters on the reaction of international actors, not just the EU, but the reactions of Central European countries (e.g., Hungary, Poland and Romania), of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors (e.g., Belarus, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan), and there is also a chapter on China and its reaction to this whole situation. Our aim here was similar to what we wanted in the first volume: we tried to be comprehensive and to look at the structural consequences of the war.

The interview is an edited version of the CEU Press podcast episode featuring the editors. You can listen to it here.

The books can be downloaded from our website as they are open access thanks to the libraries subscribing to our Opening the Future programme:

Download Volume I.: https://tinyurl.com/Volume1UkraineCEUPP
Download Volume II.: https://tinyurl.com/Vol2RussiaCEUPP

You can also order paperback copies of the books online:

Ukraine's Patronal Democracy and the Russian Invasion: The Russia-Ukraine War, Volume One

Russia's Imperial Endeavor and Its Geopolitical Consequences: The Russia-Ukraine War, Volume Two

Bálint Magyar is a sociologist and former liberal politician. Before the regime change, he worked at different research institutes in Hungary. He was also an activist of the anti-communist dissident movement and one of the founders of the Liberal Party in Hungary. He spent 20 years in parliament as an MP and six and a half years as a minister of education. In 2010, he started working on the nature of post-communist regimes.

Bálint Madlovics is a political scientist and economist. He is a research fellow of the CEU Democracy Institute and visiting professor of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (ELTE). He has published peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and books on post-communist regimes since 2015. With Bálint Magyar, he is the co-author and co-editor of several key CEU Press titles.

Oksana Huss is originally from Ukraine, from Zakarpattia or Transcarpatia. She studied international relations in Uzhhorod and then moved to Germany where she studied political science, law and anthropology at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. She worked on corruption in Ukraine for 10 years and did her PhD dedicated to this topic. Currently she is associated researcher with the BTECHT project at the Bologna University looking at social movements and how social movements against corruption use and create technologies to counteract corruption. She wrote a book about anti-corruption movements.

Mikhail Minakov is a philosopher and political scholar. He studies democracy, autocracy, and oligarchy as well as how people organize themselves in power networks. Issues of corruption or patronalism are among his interests and he works as a principal investigator and senior advisor on Ukraine at Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. He is also a visiting fellow at IWM Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

Kálmán Mizsei's association with Ukraine is from the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He was UNAP's regional director for Europe and the CIS countries in 2001, 2006 and the founding head of the European Union advisory mission for civilian security sector reform in Ukraine from 2014. He has been very intensely dealing with Ukraine since then, particularly with the rule of law issues which he regards as the core issue of systemic reform in Ukraine. He also deals extensively with Moldova.

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