Friday, March 14, 2014

Ukraine needs help to overcome the Iron Law of Oligarchy

Daron Acemoglu’s article on the Ukraine in today’s Globe & Mail is a must read for all who are concerned about the mammoth task facing Ukraine right now. Unlike so many writers who skate across the thin ice of ignorance in their commentary on what is really happening in that blighted country, Acemoglu gets to the heart of things with a penetrating analysis of the reality facing those young men and women who took to the streets.

He starts with this succinct summary:

But at the root of the situation is a legacy of political and economic institutions that have favoured elites at the expense of the majority of Ukrainians and have kept the country impoverished.

After examining the forked road choices that the former countries of the mighty Soviet Russia took when that empire shattered itself on rocks of its own making, the writer highlights the problem facing the Ukraine – the problem posed by the Iron Law of Oligarchy:

This has happened in Ukraine, as well. The Orange Revolution of 2004 promised to usher in a more inclusive society, but the new leaders proved just as corrupt and self-serving as those they had toppled. With the most recent protests, the Ukrainian people have once again tried to overcome a corrupt elite. And once again, they are facing a backlash that threatens to halt reform.

This isn’t unusual. German sociologist Robert Michels called it the “iron law of oligarchy” – oligarchies will work hard to defend themselves, and if they are overthrown, it’s usually by new oligarchs who are as bad or worse.

He spells out several steps that need to be taken for the Ukraine to avoid the continued application of the Iron Law of Oligarchy to its oppressed people.

It would be well for the EU, the US and Canada to consider his proposals seriously. The loan terms of the IMF and other potential lenders are good moves, but do not address the political dimension because they focus on the economic reforms needed.

The West should also have a Democracy 101 set of nation-building starter steps that it insists on as a price for any failed state to be admitted to closer trading ties and other forms of aid.

If men with guns stop the young gathered in the public spaces from moving their corrupt societies into more democratic ways, then there is a moral obligation on the West to step in and shield them from those guns, and help them take steps for the greater good of the bulk of their people.

Or have we failed to recognize the lessons of the past?

Let us not walk past them on the other side of the street.

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