Skip to content

Clan Politics and Backward Lands

Despite the London bombings, and despite the toll of dead, we all know the difference between the nuisance of terrorism and the menace of total political meltdown. In Ukraine, last November, there were for a time three “presidents”. The army was lining up behind one of them, the Security Service was backing another, and Russia’s President Putin was sticking his nose in too. Almost anything could have happened. Adrian Karatnycky’s “Ukraine’s Orange Revolution” in the March/April Foreign Affairs is a gripping account of what took place.

The entire episode illustrates the political backwardness of this struggling country. But can these events, which included the attempted poison-murder of the ultimately successful candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, also be read more positively? Karytnycky thinks so—but I wonder. Do they indicate, as he believes, that a responsible middle class now exists in sufficient numbers to influence things for the better? Or are the underlying problems far more intractable, and deeply a part of traditional pre-modern cultures more generally?

For years throughout the Soviet era we witnessed the comedy of mock “elections” in which the winning party regularly got about 98% of the vote. Nothing more startlingly illustrated the primeval political mentality of the Soviets. One can imagine the smiling arguments that went on among the Party directorate as to whether the opposition should be allowed 2% of the vote, or only 1.5%. But who cared? Everywhere in the Soviet world so-called “elections” took place as if the outside world wasn’t looking, mainly because in one-party states the “electorate” could do absolutely nothing about it.

Not surprisingly, Ukrainians expected something better last year. So when Mr Yanukovich was declared to be getting 92% of the vote in the eastern Donetsk it was all too obvious what was going on—Grand Vote Theft on a huge scale. Karatnycky reports that according to the non-partisan Committee of Voters of Ukraine, which had 10,000 monitors on the ground, no less that “85,000 local government officials helped perpetrate the fraud, and at least 2.8 million ballots were rigged in favor of Yanukovich.

Clans and corruption

But why? How in this new and open era could such a brazen political hijack possibly succeed? And how could so many officials be involved? These questions lead to a conspicuous feature of Ukrainian political life—the primitivism of a society strongly built around clans, with loyalty to clan outweighing other loyalties and responsibilities, especially in the eastern part of the country. I emphasize the clan system first, because all over the world people are talking about “corruption” as if it is something to be considered by itself and on its own. For example, we are told over and over that Africa’s leaders are “corrupt”.

In ethnic affairs in various other places, from Canada to New Zealand and Australia, the same accusation is made—and it’s often true as far as it goes. But if critical analysis ceases with the charge that there’s “corruption at the top” or that there are “corrupt elites”, and that nepotism is rampant, we are not going to make much progress understanding the problem—let alone dealing with it.

It is certainly true that corruption went right to the top in Ukraine: in 2000, President Kuchma’s former bodyguard leaked hundreds of hours of transcripts of his private conversations. Karatnycky writes that “On the tapes, Kuchma is heard dispensing favors, paying massive kickbacks, and conspiring to suppress his opponents—making it clear that the president sat at the head of a vast criminal system.”

Now it would be wrong to suggest that this “criminal system” was coextensive in the strictest sense with the “clan system”. Yet it is obvious from Karatnycky’s discussion that the clan system, with its strong territorial connections (Kiev, Donetsk, Transcarpathia), was certainly the social and political foundation of the criminal system he describes. In this milieu, as in Africa, corruption is not something between A and B, occurring in private and alone. Nor is it something between one oligarch and one sub-oligarchic client.

Nor can it be dealt with simply by condemning or even removing the individuals involved. It involves vast extended “families” of beneficiaries, and almost equally vast armies of enforcers, all of them determined to protect what westerners may call “ill-gotten gains”, but which clan members see as perfectly legitimate claims. After describing how a number of “oligarchic clans” came to dominate Ukrainian politics in the early 1990s, Karatnycky writes:

Each interest group established its own political party in parliament. The Kiev clan ran the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine. The Donetsk oligarchs created the Party of Regions, the ranks of which included a local governor who later became prime minister: Yanukovich. The Dnipropetrovsk group created and backed the Labor Party.

For a decade after 1989 everything ran smoothly. Prominent clan members divided the spoils of privatisation among themselves—steel mills worth billions were got for a few million; energy companies sold for a song; while the manipulative control of taxation, by inspections and fines enforced by what are in effect state-supported standover men, was used by rival clans to harass or force out of business their opponents.

Then toward the end of the 1990s the criminal/clan/oligarchic system began to unravel, with other Big Men growing powerful enough to threaten President Kuchma, and the nasty murder of an investigative journalist being traceable to Kuchma himself.

New man, old culture

We know the upshot. A new election produced a new “clean” leader in Mr Yushchenko—a man whose persistence in the face of his own attempted murder and the disfiguring sickness of dioxin poisoning, concerted harassment throughout the campaign including denial of landing rights to his aircraft, constant denigration in the media controlled by his opponent, road barriers plus an attempt to cause a fatal accident by forcing his car into a ditch, amounts to heroism on a truly Churchillian scale.

His triumph was magnificent. No-one can take that away. But it might be timely to stand back a little and recognise that this has been the easy part. For it is surely true that the structure of Ukraine’s clan-dominated society remains much the same as before. This means first of all that many Ukrainians, especially in the east, do not expect to earn a livelihood as autonomous citizens independently creating wealth; they hope to enjoy the spoils of office by using whatever pressure and influence their “family” connections allow.

Secondly, it means that whatever entrepreneurial activity takes place will have to be within the severely constraining framework of the clan system. Mr Karatnycky talks in his first paragraph, as optimistic Americans often talk, about “the rise of a powerful civic movement”, about “a skilled political opposition group”, and about the “determined middle class” that resisted the Kuchma regime. And he reports that

The Yushchenko camp has stated its gratitude for the long-term efforts of the U.S. Agency for International Development to support free media, the rule of law, civil society, and civic election monitoring there.

But exactly what laws will be imposed by those who rule? Will they allow a hair-dresser to set up on the corner and ply her trade? Will a man be able to build a delicatessen nearby? Will another man be able to set up a timber yard, or an automotive repair shop, and will they be able to obtain the secure title to their properties they need in order to safeguard their investments? Or will they be everlastingly shadowed by one clan or another, and subject to obstruction, harassment, standover men, extortionists, all of them connected with this mob or that and making up the law as they go? One would like to know.

It’s the culture, stupid

As we said before, the clan problem is not confined to the Ukraine. Far from it. It’s a common problem in traditional, pre-modern cultures, and is of course conspicuous in Africa. And wherever it is found, corruption and nepotism—or what is called corruption by all media commentators, and by many others who should perhaps think more deeply—is routinely associated with it. Something else we see is that the journalists who point this out often strongly imply that the removal of someone at the top, or of some small and corrupt clique, is all that is needed to produce a thriving modern democracy. Such people may even imply that “regime change” induced by guillotine or firing squad recommends itself as an attractive quick fix.

The outpouring of recent commentary on Africa has brought a great deal of this sort of thing. In an article in the British Spectator for June 25, 2005 Aidan Hartley tells “How African leaders spend our money”. It’s a funny and biting survey of the Wabenzi and their taste for big and expensive cars, arguing that aid hasn’t worked, and quoting a Merrill Lynch report which estimates that 100,000 Africans own $380 billion (most of it siphoned from international aid) while 300 million others live on 50 pence a day. Hartley concludes that “The West needs to help Africans get better leaders before it increases aid.”

But how exactly would you “help” Africans to do that? Would regime change do it? An entertaining Max Boot tirade in the LA Times for July 7, 2005 goes further. Ridiculing the rock-and-roll activities of Live-8, and claiming that in Africa what Bob Geldof himself has called “corruption and thuggery” is the main problem, he ends with the following politics-by-numbers suggestion: “Use the G-8’s jillions 2 hire mercenaries 4 the overthrow of the 6 most thuggish regimes in Africa. That would do more to help ordinary Africans than any number of musical extravaganzas.” Ordinary Africans, we are to understand from this, have quite different values from the men at the top.

In the Wall Street Journal for July 5, 2005 an economically more responsible contribution from Moeletsi Mbeki (a brother of South African president Thabo Mbeki), a man who is by no means an ordinary African and who is at the University of Witwatersrand, writes that “at the root of Africa’s problems are ruling political elites that have squandered the continent’s wealth and choked its productivity over the last 40 years.” In the case of each of these writers, the main thing you have to do is remove a dictator, overthrow a regime, or displace and neutralise a sinister “ruling political elite”… Then everything will be just fine.

So you remove the corrupt leader—what then?

But let us try a little thought experiment. Let us remove Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and any of a dozen others you care to name. Let us then see what happens next as we start with what is optimistically called a “clean slate.”

Assuming you’re not going to install an outsider, who shall be appointed and where do you find him? If he or she is going to simply be a member of the same tribe and clan-based cultural milieu that produced the original despot, working in the same context of ambiguous and unenforceable law, and gravely imperfect or rudimentary political institutions, how are you to get a replacement with better ideas about politics, economics, and social life?

Why is it assumed that the mere decapitation of a political body will in itself bring improvement? Are the political genes that made the body utterly different from the political genes that made the head —if you will pardon the metaphor? “Regime change” is a splendid phrase; but it looks rather less splendid if it means that you must be prepared to appoint, staff, direct, and manage each new regime yourself—all of this while under fire.

Then there’s that word “corruption”. Of course I use it myself to describe the conduct of certain political leaders, in Africa and elsewhere. But at the same time I also realise it is a moralistic term that assumes certain norms regarding business practice and truly belongs in a western context. In brief, it belongs in prosperous countries where politicians, business leaders, public figures, and notables of one kind or another, are not supposed to enrich themselves by means of bribes and kickbacks.

But what if this kind of enrichment is expected? One doesn’t have to be a moral relativist to see the inappropriateness of the word “corruption” in certain contexts. Is it appropriate to use it in a scornfully moralistic tone of Africa (or of the Ukraine for that matter) where bribes, kickbacks, under-the-table payments, ‘sweeteners’ and so on, are all part of the normal way in which the wealth of society is distributed. In such places they are payments made to those with power and influence for services rendered. That is how “blat” was used in the strange, quasi-feudal, pre-modern society of Soviet Russia—and that is how it is doubtless used in much of Russia today. What we call corruption is simply daily life: it’s the culture, stupid!

It also seems to me unhelpful to classify such payments as part of the “informal economy” as economists are inclined to do. Both those who are forced to offer bribes, and those who demand them, simply assume that that is how life is lived, and that is how things get done if they are going to be done at all. Call it formal, informal, whatever. It is in short “the culture”—the ubiquitous culture of backward dysfunctional lands lacking all effective social, political, and economic institutions. In other words it is part of a comprehensive pattern of values, expectations, conduct and consequences that have always made the traditional world go round.

Does this mean that I take a relaxed view of such behavior, or condone it in the modern world? Not at all. In America, Australia, and New Zealand 99% of the people are literate, are entirely westernised, and the law on corruption is known and accepted. Nor in such places is poverty an incentive to corruption. The ethnic minority in these countries who try to exploit remnant traditions of clan and tribe for their own advantage, and act corruptly within this or that government bureaucracy (their usual means of access to large cash funds), deserve to be vigorously prosecuted and appropriately punished.

But where 99% of the people live under quite different conditions, where lawlessness prevails and the judicial system is a joke; where poverty is universal; and where the provision of basic services to one’s farm or house or office may take years of effort and countless bribes to countless officials—plainly a rather different attitude is required.

Social evolution and remnant traditions

In the early world—once upon a time, in some remote sociological Eden—All was One and All was Unity. Political power, economic activity, religious belief, social mores, and the definitions of good and evil and true and false by which we live, were all facets of a compound unity bound together by relations of kith and kin—the kinship of family, clan, and tribe.

If the tribe said evil was good, then it was good; if the tribe said black was white, then black was white. And if the chief or priest of the tribe said evil was good, or black was white, no-one dared say him nay. For westerners that world is irrevocably past, and has been since the Renaissance; and to yearn for it today, as many anthropologists urge us to, is just silly. Modernity means that politics, economics, religious belief, social mores, and what each of us call good and evil are all separated; and this differentiation is a defining feature of modern life. We do not allow clan leaders to define right and wrong. We do not allow chiefs to determine justice. We do not allow priests to define scientific truth and falsehood. And we do not allow clan leaders, chiefs, or priests to run our economic affairs. In political life, and in American judicial practice, this differentiation is most familiar in terms of the separation of powers.

But throughout much of the rest of the world, remnant shreds and patches of traditional cultural patterns persist, as they do throughout Africa, and in parts of Asia, and as they still do even on the periphery of the West itself in Ukraine and other Slavic nations. In such places political, economic, and judicial authority may be strongly influenced by clan affiliation. In Africa, where modernity has never really taken root, this fact virtually defines the human world, and it is surely sensible for the West to adopt policies that take account of this fact.

One practical consequence is that we should stop pretending that although there are evil men at the top, everyone else is like you and me. They are not. Nor are they evil. Many are perfectly nice people to visit, to share a beer with, or to dance with to the intoxicating rhythms of local bands. But it is equally true that they necessarily think pretty much the same way as the men at the top think, and whatever they may say in private, they will behave the same way if put in a position of leadership, because they will experience just the same clan- and family-based cultural pressures and constraints.

Another consequence we must face up to concerns aid, for the expectation of beneficial effects in such societies is bound to be disappointed. Whatever Blair and Bush say at Gleneagles, only the infinitely rich, the entirely blind, and the pathologically optimistic will say it makes sense to persist in voluntarily throwing billions of good money after bad. As numerous pessimists have argued year after year, it is the economic equivalent of pouring water straight onto desert sands. But it’s not water—it’s your money and mine.

Following on from this is the even more serious matter of vaguely military fantasizing to be found among people like Max Boot, Aidan Hartley, and Moeletsi Mbeki—about forcefully removing despots, annihilating cliques, neutralising elites, etc. Much blood and treasure may be lost trying to do this, as in Iraq today, but the outcome is doubtful. Only where most people are well-educated, literate, and already largely westernised (as they appear to be in Ukraine) and represent, in Adrian Karatnycky’s words, a clear electoral majority favoring “free media, the rule of law, civil society, and civic election monitoring”, does there seem to be a better than even chance of success.

Posted in Africana, Tribalism, Notes.

Tagged with , , , , .