The Blackmail state – By Yilma Bekele

July 5th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

The title is taken from a paper written by Mykola Ryabchuk, a Ukrainian scholar from a lecture he delivered at the University of Alberta on March 12, 2004. His analysis is regarding the post communist Ukrainian society. Mr. Ryabchuk might as well have been taking about our country. The Ukrainian ruling elite that found itself in charge of this vast country in the aftermath of Mr. Gorbachev’s Perestroika movement is a mirror image of the Ethiopian government. (more…)

The title is taken from a paper written by Mykola Ryabchuk, a Ukrainian scholar from a lecture he delivered at the University of Alberta on March 12, 2004. His analysis is regarding the post communist Ukrainian society. Mr. Ryabchuk might as well have been taking about our country. The Ukrainian ruling elite that found itself in charge of this vast country in the aftermath of Mr. Gorbachev’s Perestroika movement is a mirror image of the Ethiopian government.

His analysis deconstructs the myth and disinformation we consume daily regarding transition from totalitarianism to democracy. His point of interest is Ukraine. It is another coincidence that Ukraine is giving us a new perspective and needed boost to show us that there is light at the end of the tunnel. If Ukraine can overcome such an advanced coercive system ever devised by man so can we. We are indebted to the Ukrainians. Again.

The first time Ukraine entered our vision was during the 2005 general elections in our country. The ‘Orange Revolution’ was a series of protest, civil disobedience, sit-ins and strikes held to protest the governments attempt to compromise the run-off elections for the presidency. The peaceful protest led the Supreme Court to order a revote. Our own opposition parties were galvanized by the power of the people and the ‘Orange Revolution’ was seen as model. Ukraine is judged by European standards where the bar is set a little bit higher. There are no minimum expectations from Africa. Mr. Simon Tisdall of The Guardian UK quotes the PM as arguing ‘it is in any case irrational and unfair to expect the instant attainment of Westminster-style standards of governance from struggling developing nations emerging, in many cases, from decades of colonial exploitation, dictatorship, war and famine.’ We have lower expectations too.

Mr. Ryabchuk’s thesis was written about Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the ensuing chaos the old communist party leaders and the KGB together with the elite took power. He writes ‘the system they built is neither communist nor capitalist. It resembles, essentially, the patrimonial system of absolutist monarchies in which the “first estate” (the so called “oligarchs”) enjoy a relative independence from the “patron” based on relations of “mutual courtesy,” that is on “a clear understanding that loyalty gets protection and protection gets loyalty.” I believe it is better for Mr. Ryabchuk to speak for himself. Following is direct quotation from his speech.

A number of pre-existing states, such as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, became independent, changed their names, assumed certain new functions in areas like foreign relations and military affairs, but retained mostly the same structures led by mainly the same people, doing basically the same things as before… The only basic change was that the Party and Central Committee apparatus was replaced by presidential representatives and the Presidential Administration.

• Most scholars tend to define the post-Soviet regimes of the Ukrainian and Russian type as semi-authoritarian. These regimes “have adopted the institutional forms of democracy, including regular elections, yet they manipulate the political process and the degree of political liberty sufficiently to ensure that their basic hold on power is not threatened. They are trying to carry out a political balancing act: allowing enough democracy to gain international legitimacy and to relieve domestic political pressure, but keeping hold of the levers of political power to a sufficient degree to maintain their power indefinitely. They typically permit some space for civil society to organize and operate” but take utmost care to keep it weak and underdeveloped, without “any realistic chance of changing the basic power structures.”

• The Ukrainian state, and the presidency in particular, is not weak, but … many of its capacities are exercised through informal mechanisms of control that have until recently been hidden from view… The new evidence suggests that pervasive corruption, combined with extensive surveillance and the collection of evidence of wrongdoing by the state, provided the basis for the Ukrainian leadership to use blackmail systematically to secure compliance with its directives. Corruption, rather than a sign of state weakness, is an essential element of the informal mechanism of presidential control in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states.

• Blackmail, as an instrument of state control, relies on three basic elements. The first is a permissive attitude of state leaders toward corruption. In Ukraine, corruption and illegality among the elite were accepted, condoned, and even encouraged by the top leadership, resulting in a general atmosphere of impunity. The second element is extensive state surveillance. Even as the violation of the law is encouraged, the state-or rather the surveillance organs under the control of the president (including the tax ministry, interior ministry, and secret police)-continues to monitor such illegal activities. Using the surveillance organs, the state amasses a stockpile of files and criminal cases that document wrongdoing on the part of officeholders as well as private actors. When compliance with state directives is required, this information is used to blackmail the elite, with payment exacted not in cash but in obedience. The representatives of the power organs are able to present each member of the elite with a file containing compromising materials (kompromat) or evidence of wrongdoing-with the implicit or explicit threat that a sudden decision to enforce the law would lead to the imprisonment of the individual in question. Thus is compliance secured.

• If blackmail is insufficient, individuals or groups that openly oppose the policies of the state or seek to usurp the existing leadership suddenly find that the veil of impunity has been lifted. The kompromat files or zagotovki are then made public, and recalcitrant individuals and their organizations immediately find themselves under close scrutiny or prosecution by the tax inspector, the law enforcement bodies, or other state institutions. But as long as consistent compliance with state directives is maintained, the state’s role amounts to no more than surveillance, blackmail, and, in some cases, a cut of the proceeds. The mere threat of exposure and prosecution serves to keep the elite firmly under control.

• There are several reasons why a cycle of corruption, blackmail, and informal autocracy may prove self-sustaining. For one, none of the actors that play a role in it have the opportunity or incentive to change. Kuchma himself has every reason to maintain this system. It allows him to stay in power and gives him a remarkable leverage within the country. State officials, such as regional governors and ministerial heads, would also prefer the status quo to any of the likely alternatives. On the one hand, the atmosphere of impunity allows them to gain and hold the fruits of corruption chiefly available to those in high office. On the other hand, any effort to deviate from this system, or to make a move to extract oneself, would result in selective law enforcement or some other means of repression by the state.

• Ironically, the current popular efforts to strengthen the state in order to eradicate corruption and lawlessness will likely have the opposite effect. Harsher laws, in the absence of rule of law, only make selective enforcement (what Stephen Holmes has called “rule by law” or “rule through law”) all the more potent. Likewise, the further transfer of authority and resources to the president, and to the surveillance agencies under his control, promises to do little more than to shift more power to the core institutional base of the blackmailing state. If anything, eradication of the informal autocracy that has been constructed in Ukraine-and the terror and vice accompanying it-requires, rather, a fragmentation or distribution of the president’s capacities to other institutions and actors, however ideologically unpalatable they might be.

The similarity with the current Ethiopian regime is very alarming. The conclusion is cause for concern. The millions of dollars donated by the British and the US is strengthening the Blackmail state rather than taming it to be a law-abiding people based government.

The so-called ‘musena’ prosecuting authority under the PM is nothing but a clearinghouse to collect material for use when necessary. Judge Wolde-Michael Meshesha’s article ( regarding the misuse of Ministry of Justice is very revealing about the use of corruption and nepotism.

The last few days the complaint raised by the Ethiopian people both at home and outside and International organizations such as Human Right Watch and Amnesty International is regarding the passage of draconian laws to intimidate and muzzle the citizen. The law is being used to further consolidate state power in the hands of the one party administration. Using the law in such manner erodes the smooth functioning of a civilized union leading for the population to disregard all values and moral standard. Two examples one from the US and one from Ethiopia shows us the mind set of those who craft the law that is supposed to benefit society as a whole.

California Senate Bill 1613 was signed by the Governor in 2006. The law required Californians to put down their cell phone while driving and use hands-free device. The bill was thoroughly discussed by both houses of the legislature who heard arguments for and against it. The State government allowed two years of transition time before the law took effect. The two years gave the California Highway Patrol and other agencies to teach the public regarding the law and allowed the citizen to explore various devices for use. The fine for failure to use hands free device was a mere $20.00 for first offense and $50.00 thereafter. The ticket will not carry violation point.

The Ethiopian government was aware of ‘Foreign Currency changers’ in every part of town. Many people including government officials used their services. They were delivering needed service efficiently. Their rate was considerably higher than the Banks giving the consumer higher value for his money. They were generating work and income to a lot of people. One morning the so-called federal police, the PM’s private Militia, raided every ‘money changing service’. Without warrant and due process all their working capital and property was confiscated and some of them were hauled to jail. There was no discussion, no warning just selective enforcement of the existing law.

California’s intention was to use the law to improve the quality of life of its citizens, whereas Ethiopia was using the law to punish and humiliate. Using coercive means such as confiscation the regime was breaking its own law in its wanton disregard for due process. The idea was to intimidate and show who really is in charge. Dictators require reassurance, thus the constant provocation and random use of violence are a trademark of totalitarianism.
It was Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, a Puerto Rican nationalist who said ‘if tyranny is the law, revolution is in order.’ The regime is trying our patience and it is wearing thin.


[1] “From ‘Dysfunctional’ to ‘Blackmail’ State: Paradoxes of the Post-Soviet Transition”
[2] Text of the 38th Annual Shevchenko Lecture, delivered by Mykola Ryabchuk at the University of Alberta on March 12, 2004
[3] Blackmail as a Tool of State Domination: Ukraine under Kuchma – Keith A. Darden
[4] East European Constitutional Review Spring/Summer 2001

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