Law and Experimentation in Independent Ukraine
In October 2001 the Ukrainian parliament passed a new comprehensive land code legalizing private ownership of land for the first time since 1928. The new code reversed a defining feature of Socialism and made collectively-held agricultural land the private property of the farmers who occupied it. Private property ownership was not a foregone conclusion of post-Soviet independence in Ukraine. In fact, it took a decade of contentious parliamentary and civil society debate, capped by fist-fights on the floor of the parliament, to bring a bill authorizing it to a vote. Its passage sparked speculation. Both proponents and opponents of privatization expected much from the new property regime and the self-interest, industriousness, ambition, or greed it was expected to unleash. Would a farmer who owned her own land manage it more efficiently and maximize its profitability? Would he be more industrious? Less prone to alcoholism? More prone to exploiting hired labor? All of these predictions, and many more, were made; the country waited to see the results. Thus far, one outcome is clear. After the bill’s passage, in less than five years, a nation of collective farms became a nation of titled property owners.
Law under Conditions of Rupture
The new land code was just one of many legislative changes dismantling the legal framework and institutions of the Soviet Union in Ukraine that took spatial terms as their object. A new constitution wrote Ukraine onto the map as a legally constituted independent government, inscribing jurisdiction onto topography. The new land code created private property in land and divided agricultural land and parceled it among resident farmers. Territory, farm, garden plot, capital, apartment: these spatial items became objects of reform, and, as questions of the type listed above reveal, while spatial matters were the nominal objects of reform, the actual target was their human users. National borders reframed relationships between the newly independent state, the citizens over which it claimed jurisdiction, and the “outside” world. Parcels carved out of collective farms reframed relationships of rural residents to each other, their farmlands, and the cityscapes to which they fled. In-groups, out-groups, and new patterns of circulation and arbitrage emerged.
My research focuses on the role that law has played in the reframing of physical locale that has occurred over the two decades since the end of the Soviet Union. It tackles some basic questions. What changes came about? What expectations were met, or disappointed? More broadly, how are we to understand the role of law and legal change in contemporary Ukraine, a context of rupture in which bases of legitimacy and the nature of authority are still in formation? Independent Ukraine has been a land of legal experiments, and law is the technology for which state and citizens have reached, again and again, to accomplish post-Soviet reform. In addition to the focus on law and spatial organization, two other methodological choices shape the research. First, taking up Nader’s challenge to study “up, down, and sideways” (Nader 1972) imposes the time-consuming work of developing contacts with parliamentarians, Supreme Court justices, and corporate titans as well as developing relationships of trust with village smallholders. It also opens unexpected lines of inquiry. Second, the analytic framework I deploy looks at law in two ways: as an artifact, which can be analyzed to tell us something about the people and structures that produced it; and as a tool, which can be analyzed for what it produces.
Property as Setting
I apply this approach to three frames of analysis. In one, I trace the production of legal subjects. Fieldwork among both parliamentarians and former kolkhozniki (collective farmers) allows insight into some of the micropractices that produce laws, law-makers, and farmers. The constitution and the new land code created new forms of legal subjects and subjectivity, wrought by the mobilization of affect (for example, nostalgia and hope) and the tightening of certain networks at least as much as by allocation of material resources. Second, gingerly adapting US anthropology’s proposition of culture as both material and ideational, I analyze relationships between ideas and objects. Intentional borrowing from other legal systems, mimesis, accidents, all play a role in the legislative outcomes, which in turn produce milieux for new forms of material culture: artificial mushroom farms, market vegetable megaplexes, impoverished combine cannibalism. Third, I analyze the working of law at the level of the social. This gives purchase on interrelationships between law and social forms, leading to more finely grained understanding of such tropes of post-Soviet Ukraine as family, democracy, oligarchy, “clans” (klany). I follow investments in land by so-called “supertenants” (Verdery 2003) with particular attention to the role of ethical structures—market ethics, Socialist mores, rule of law commitments, patron-client expectations—as well as structures like corporate forms in determining present and future land use.
Vacancy and Other Unfinished Business
This story is not over. Here we note a second preliminary outcome of land reform, this one surprising: Of 17 million Ukrainians eligible to receive land plots, most of whom had stuck out village life for the first tough ten years of post-Soviet decay, approximately 10 million recipients abandoned their holdings within three years and left villages for cities. Fieldwork in this setting involves investigating land-reform ghost towns, tracing lines of flight, taking measure of the phantom limb of the collective, and learning about the lived experience of vacancy. As an ethnographer, fashioning understandings of illiberal subjectivity and the unraveling of an illiberal commons takes time.
The basic rules of land ownership will set parameters for the development of a fundamental resource base in a potential agricultural powerhouse like Ukraine; they will also determine which relationships endure, what kind of relationships are built and persist, and what kind of persons and citizens emerge. In Ukraine, the creation of private property has created the property owner, the central figure of neoliberal citizenship; but it has also created rule-maker, rule-evader, canny immigrant and desperate emigrant. Following it allows us to look with some specificity at how it has shaped farmers, parliamentarians, and others, and whether it has engendered experience that empowers. The next step in the institutionalization of rights in real property in Ukraine, introduction of a secondary market in land, is due in 2013 with a promised lifting of a moratorium in land sales. Its effects, too, remain to be seen.
Monica Eppinger, assistant professor of law and anthropology at St Louis University, researches the interrelationships between speech acts, space organization and subject formation. Prior to her career in anthropology, she served at the US Embassy in Kiev as liaison to the Ukrainian parliament during the drafting of Ukraine’s post-Soviet constitution.