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Alexander J. Motyl
Ukraine's 'Loose' Culture

Here's a finding that may surprise you. According to a recently published multi-author study, Ukraine's culture is the "loosest" of 33 countries examined by an international team of psychologists, including the Psychology Department of Odessa National University. Loose cultures have weak "social norms" and evince "tolerance of deviant behavior." In contrast, tight cultures have strong social norms and are intolerant of deviance. If the study is to be believed, a few extant stereotypes about Ukraine may have to be revised. So, too, will some expectations by the Yanukovych regime.

Pakistan's culture, with a score of 12.3, is the tightest. Next are Malaysia (11.8), India (11.0), Singapore (10.4), and South Korea (10.0). No surprises there. Then come Norway (9.5), Turkey (9.2), Japan (8.6), and China (7.9). Ditto. Most of the Western Europeans are clustered in the 5 to 7 range, while the United States comes in at 5.1. Sounds right. Greece, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Israel score, respectively, 3.9, 3.5, 3.3, and 3.1. That, too, sounds right. The only two countries in the 2-point range are Hungary (2.9) and Estonia (2.6). Sure, why not? And then there's Ukraine, which is completely off the grid, with 1.6.

To tell the truth, Ukraine's score strikes me as a bit weird, especially in light of the fact that the authors argue that "Ecological and human-made threats increase the need for strong norms and punishment of deviant behavior in the service of social coordination for survival." After all, if any country has faced enormous ecological and human-made threats in the last century-the two world wars, Stalin's terror, and the 1933 famine-genocide come to mind-it's Ukraine. On the other hand, the Communist Party also managed to construct an especially efficient system of cradle-to-grave socialism in Ukraine (as well as in the other two low scorers, Hungary and Estonia), which may have alleviated some of those threats.

In any case, even if Ukraine's score is too low, the fact that it's at the loose end of the spectrum is highly significant. For one thing, the commonplace stereotypes of Ukrainians as genetically inclined cutthroats, thugs, bandits, anti-Semites, fascists, and brutes may have to be reconsidered. The study suggests that the inter-ethnic and inter-confessional tolerance that's characterized Ukraine in the last two decades is no accident, but the cultural product of longer-term historical forces. This, of course, is bad news for extremist parties on the left and on the right, but good news for everyone else. It's also bad news for superficial Western correspondents and the recent crop of self-styled revisionist historians who have unwittingly grounded their analyses of Ukraine in the above crude stereotypes.

Ukraine's score is especially disturbing for President Viktor Yanukovych and his authoritarian project. According to the study:
Tightness-looseness is reflected in societal institutions and practices. Tight nations are more likely to have autocratic rule that suppresses dissent, less open media overall, more laws and regulations and political pressures and controls for media, and less access to and use of new communication technologies. Tight nations also have fewer political rights and civil liberties. Criminal justice institutions in tight nations are better able to maintain social control:. The percentage of people participating in collective actions (e.g., signing petitions, attending demonstrations) is much lower in tight nations, and more people report that they would never engage in such actions comparison to loose nations.

These findings clearly hold for Ukraine, which has experienced almost non-stop protests in the last 25 years-from the anti-Soviet demonstrations of the late 1980s and the anti-Kuchma campaigns of the 1990s to the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Entrepreneurs' Rebellion of late 2010. The study suggests that such anti-authoritarian behavior is, again, not accidental, nor even the product of some combination of contingent social circumstances, but the result of Ukraine's loose culture. Seen in this light, the Yanukovych regime's efforts to roll back democracy, squeeze the media, and confine Ukrainian culture to reservations are doomed to failure. That's bad news for Yanukovych and great news for everybody else.

But the news gets worse for Ukraine's hapless president. Take a very loose culture, add a stupidly repressive and shockingly incompetent political elite, throw in a soccer championship and general elections in 2012-and what might you get? Snowballing social protests that could bring down the regime. Thank God the Regionnaires and their "proffessor"-in-chief don't read.

August 05, 2011