From Oligarchy to Feudalism

Is the crisis in Ukraine triggering a shift from oligarchy to feudalism?

Weeks ago HRW and the NYT reported on forced labour in East Ukraine,  an area held by DPR militias. [1] Citizens told they were obliged to work some days or weeks after they have been caught drunken, drinking beer in public, using illegal drugs. One man’s mistake was having gasoline in wartimes. The work of those ‘punishment brigades’ included cleaning streets, digging trenches or filling sandbags near the front line. According to a source of the NYT people are also being abused and held in basements for weeks.

The rebel commander, known by his nickname, Lukich, said he treated the detainees humanely. The practice achieves two objectives, he said, imposing the social rules infused with Russian Orthodox Christian values of the new state, while helping the city’s defenses. Drug addicts are summarily sentenced to trench digging. “If they cause some harm to society, we keep them here for 15 days, they live with us, they work, and they realize their mistakes.” NYT, 4/9/2014

Some days ago the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy announced to extend the list of ‘community service’ under martial law. It’s worth having a look at the formulations. [2] Citizens will be entered into fixed-term employment agreements without mandatory consent. It concerns mainly the part of the population which is able to work: students, self-employed (farmers) and unemployed ones. As frame for the new policy serves the term ‘labour service’.

Andrej Hunko a member of the German Bundestag and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe states that Ukrainian paramilitaries and insurgents of DPR/LPR force civilians to labor. [3]

Civil rights, human trafficking and forced labor have been an issue in Ukraine since years. In this context the reports above should be read as a warning. If the concept of ‘people own people’ practiced by criminal organization spills over to governmental institutions in order to increase its resources and control, then the danger of ending up in a feudal society is high. I will roughly summarize how I come to this conclusion:

1. It’s wartime, OK. Martial law is different to daily politics. There are unusual solutions for unusual times. Even democracies reduce civil rights in the face of war, ‘after war is over, we go back to normal’.

2. I don’t expect a soon ending in the Ukrainian conflict. In short: Interests and expectations of actors in the Ukrainian theatre are very disparate from each other; the distribution of resources and innovation in respect of warfare make sure that no player has the ability to take another player out of the game. At least not without cooperation with others. If there is no winner and no solution war goes on. If war goes on martial law goes on. Why?

3. The function of martial law is to increase security, stability and resources of the nation – and to ensure the political survival of the people in charge. Those elements become more scare the longer war goes on. If a ruling party needs to extract more of its already poor people in order to resist internal and external contenders, there is not much left to get than their absolute loyalty. Since this is happening in a oligarchic environment loyalty is bounded to the oligarchs personally rather than to institutions. If this happens systematically, it looks to me very much like feudalism – beyond any red line.

4. I suppose further that the degeneration of civil rights will be quicker and more selective in areas held by DPR/LPR and the Ukrainian paramilitaries. The rational is that the lack of institutions (or bureaucracy) needs to be compensated by personal decisions and loyalties. For the territory under control of the Ukrainian government I expect the transformation to feudalism slower but more systematically. If this scenario should turn out to be accurate we might soon see different developments of the Ukrainian state and the autonomous areas. This includes different definitions and practices of humanitarian standards allowing every actor to frame the others as morally degenerated.

In general we might expect a further blurring of political, military and economic affairs on the base of personalities and loyalties rather than on the rule of law.

The issue of forced labour concerns civilians on all sides and it makes visible a frightening process. In this respect it is a chance for the civil society (and its elites) to coordinate, formulate and communicate minimal standards of humanity in this kind of war. – The safety net of International Humanitarian Law is obviously torn apart. New calibrated best-practices of warfare, its implementation and monitoring allows to measure all parties’ actions by the same scale, no matter which color they wear. This helps rationalizing perceptions and therefore serves as a common ground for round tables and conflict management. Winter is coming.


[1] New York Times, 4/8/2014 , Human Rights Watch, 4/9/2014

[2] Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy, 23/9/2014  [automated translation]

[3] Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten, 25/9/2014  [automated translation]


4 Responses
  1. Bourbon

    The author made a number of interesting observations. However I miss clear connection between the forced labor and “new feudalism”. To me forced labor is more of the slavery traits, but never mind – I agree with the author on many points. Quite alarming to me seem the following two things. Firstly, some oligarchs were appointed as governors of the regions where they seem to have direct business interests, and this does not seem to be a temporary solution any more. Secondly, volunteer battalion commanders are trying to get into the Parliament on these elections, and having not bad chances in my view. This somehow reminds me of military aristocracy of medieval times. Both can be supporting arguments for Ukraine’s observed drift towards a “feudalism”.

    • Yep, to some degree I used the term ‘feudalism’ to have a nice headline. But the systematic forced labor done by individuals is very close to feudalism to me (if feudalism is defined as a system of vassals, fiefs, lords and optional clecrics or celebreties). I put it differently: there is not much difference between ‘people own people’ and a ‘governmet that is owned by a few owns people’. In practice there might be too much dirt to disparate clearly between terms. If the situation qualifies for ‘feudalism’ is a matter of definition and perception. I (seriously) would suggest the term ‘armed politics’.

      I wasn’t aware of those two things but it’s not surprising. And it’s even more alarming. It reminds me of places like Afghanistan or Somalia. In Somalia they call those individuals sometimes ‘armed ministers’.

      Thanks for your feedback and input!