One Chart that Explains Why Ukraine was Vulnerable to Revolution

After months of protests, Ukraine slipped into violence last week as government forces attacked protesters in Kyiv. Then, in a frantic 48 hours, President Viktor Yanukovych’s government collapsed, rival politician Yulia Timoshenko was released from prison, and Yakukovych fled into hiding.  It was a stunning victory for the “maidanovtsi”, those protesting on Kyiv’s Maidan and those supporting the protesters around the county and the world.

I’m reading Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s The Predictioneer’s Game, which is about analyzing incentives to make political forecasts. This book got me thinking about Ukraine. Why did Yanukovych fall? Sure, he was corrupt, but so are many leaders in the region.

What happened in Ukraine was very complex. But it seems to me that at a basic level, the obvious corruption of the Yakukovych government,  combined with Ukraine’s relatively open and democratic society, led to an unstable situation.

To test this intuition, I looked at data from The Economist’s Democracy Index and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. This plot shows where the former Soviet republics fit on the corruption – authoritarianism plane (click on the image for interactive version):

demo cor2

It is instructive to divide this plot into quadrants. The lower left quadrant shows those countries that are both very corrupt and authoritarian. These governments have survived very high levels of corruption in part because they resort to anti-democratic means of staying in power, such as restricting citizens’ political and civil rights.

The upper right quadrant contains nations with lower levels of corruption and authoritarianism. Chief among these are the Baltic states, which have enjoyed a high degree of stability. Georgia, although it experienced a revolution in 2003, has been more politically stable in recent years.

The lower right quadrant is a null set. We just don’t see countries that are very authoritarian but not very corrupt in this region. An example of a non-Eurasian country that sits in this quadrant would be the United Arab Emirates.

And then there’s the upper left quadrant: states that are less authoritarian but have high levels of corruption. Countries occupying this space have experienced lots of political instability. Kyrgyzstan has had two revolutions in the last decade: the Tulip Revolution of 2005, and the more violent second Kyrgyz revolution in 2010. Moldova suffered widespread unrest in 2009 (the so-called Twitter Revolution), although recent trends point to a more democratic and pro-European direction. And Ukraine had the Orange Revolution in 2004 before the political order was upended again last week as a result of Euromaidan.

Of course, there are many other factors that determine how likely a government is to fall. Economic growth and inequality surely play a part, as do the personalities and governing styles of individual leaders. Yakukovych, for example, was indecisive and incompetent, and many of his allies quickly abandoned him.

So what are the lessons here? Well, if you are going to blatantly siphon money away from your constituents while ignoring many of their basic needs, you better rule with an iron fist. If not, they are going to rise up and throw you out. Or better yet, don’t run a corrupt regime in the first place.

The events in Ukraine illustrate how a relatively democratic society, with a strong civil society and a (mostly) free press can be an important check on corruption in government. Although far from being “fully democratic” in the eyes of international indices, Ukraine was democratic and open enough for Euromaidan to take root and ultimately succeed.