For anyone writing about Ukraine, language is always a problem. Not the Ukrainian that is favoured in the west of the country, nor the Russian that still is spoken in the east, but the language used to describe the country's politics. The usual terms simply do not apply.
With the thuggish President Viktor Yanukovych in charge and his archrival, Yulia Tymoshenko, in jail, Ukraine is clearly not a democracy. It is not a dictatorship either, however. Political power is a means of enrichment rather than governance.
Street protests are scarce not because of fear of repression but because Ukraine is increasingly atomized. Opposition politicians are an extension of the business groups they claim to fight. Rules are flexible, allegiances fluid and the idea of an elite, a class of people responsible for the country, is almost meaningless. Oligarchs treat Ukraine as a cash cow. Graft is so rife it is tough to see how any money at all is left in the budget.
In the words of one foreign observer, Ukraine "resembles a car in a fog with no light and no map."
Surprisingly, it is still running, but it is not following any particular route.
With Russia pressing Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union and the European Union still trying to lure Ukraine into an association and free-trade agreement, Yanukovych's choice seems to be to do neither -- justifying Ukraine's name, which means "borderland."
At a recent summit, the EU told Yanukovych to take genuine steps toward political reform and to stop persecuting his political opponents if he wanted a deal. Within days Tymoshenko's principal lawyer, Sergei Vlasenko, had been kicked out of parliament and charged with car theft and robbery. A few weeks earlier, asked at a news conference about the risk of being arrested, Vlasenko had shown his middle finger to Yanukovych. Yanukovych seems to have responded in kind, to the disbelief of many western ambassadors.
Yanukovych, however, is hardly more accommodating toward Russia. After President Vladimir Putin angrily lectured him about the benefits of the Eurasian Union, including cheaper gas, Ukraine started to buy gas from Hungary to reduce its dependence on Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas giant. Gazprom accused Ukraine of scheming.
Yulia Mostovaya, editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, an independent weekly, says Yanukovych's idea of Ukraine's sovereignty is based not on a sense of nationhood but on a firm belief that "Ukraine can only be pillaged by the Ukrainians." Ukrainian officials have done a fine job.
The most blatant example is in public procurement. In 2010, under pressure from western governments, Ukraine adopted a new procurement law to close many loopholes.
"We saw this as our major feat," a western diplomat says, sighing. "Since then this law has undergone some 28 amendments."
The number of procurement contracts awarded without open tenders has gone up, not down.
According to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes, companies linked to 10 beneficiaries win 60 per cent of all contracts. The leader of the Forbes list is Alexander Yanukovych, the president's elder son, who disputes the truthfulness and methodology of the Forbes ratings.
Most observers say "the family," a network linked to Yanukovych's family, has been expanding its influence, irking some of the older-established oligarchs.
The power of the "family" is rivaled by at least two other groups. The first is led by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest tycoon and one of the world's biggest steel producers. The second comprises gas trader Dmitry Firtash and Sergei Levochkin, his junior partner, who also is Yanukovych's chief of staff. Levochkin recently emerged as a 20 per cent owner of the country's largest private television channel, Inter, after a third partner, former security-service head Valery Khoroshkovsky, sold his stake and left Ukraine.
He seems to have overreached. Rivalry is rife not only between clans but within them as well, and loyalties are flexible. To hedge their bets, each Ukrainian oligarch supports a spectrum of politicians, providing a degree of pluralism in the system.
Politically, Yanukovych is not as strong as he seems. In last October's parliamentary elections, his Party of Regions got only 30 per cent, despite using every dirty trick in the book.
"The election was not fair," one western observer says, "but the result was a loss for Yanukovych."
His rivals, including Tymoshenko's bloc, reinforced by Arseny Yatseniuk, a former speaker of parliament, Udar (Punch), a party led by former heavyweight world boxing champion Vitaly Klichko, and Svoboda, a party of right-wing nationalists, jointly got more than 50 per cent of the vote.
Had it not been for Yanukovych's tinkering with the electoral code, he could have been out of power.
His defeat was most striking in Kiev, where the ruling party got less than 13 per cent of the vote. The prospect of winning mayoral elections and thus creating a political platform for beating Yanukovych in the 2015 elections energized Yanukovych's rivals. On April 2 some 4,000 marched to the Rada to demand a mayoral election in Kiev in June.
This was a far cry, of course, from the Orange protesters who swept across Kyiv in 2004 to deprive Yanukovych of his rigged victory in the presidential election over Viktor Yushchenko. The disappointment in the result of the Orange Revolution makes its repeat less likely.
Ukrainians are coming to realize, however, that their future depends not on the colour schemes of their politicians but on rules and institutions that can be described in normal language.