How Has Populism Influenced Political Culture in Ukraine?

May 22, 2019
Ukrainian statehood is relatively young, but its political culture has a vast legacy that is continuously reflected in Ukrainian elections. What are the main characteristics of the political culture in Ukraine?

Ukrainian statehood is relatively young, but its political culture has a vast legacy that is continuously reflected in Ukrainian elections. What are the main characteristics of the political culture in Ukraine?

Political culture in Ukraine is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon that is hard to comprehend at a glance. Throughout its history, Ukraine was mainly dominated by different countries. After the medieval statehood of Kyivan Rus, Ukrainian lands fell under domination by the Golden Horde, Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Polish Rzeczpospolita, Muscovy kingdom and then the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Soviet Union, etc. In the aftermath, it was a subject to controversial historical developments, re-drawing of borders and disputes. There was fragmentation of society on the basis of territorial, ethnic, religious and other factors, which is why political culture was and still is, far from being coherent.

Even though Ukraine has not much experience of a sustainable culture of governance, its political culture back in 1991 was a mix of complex leftovers from foreign dominators.

According to the World Values Survey more than half of all Ukrainians consider politics not very important or not at all important in their lives. The same proportion applies to the indicator of confidence in political parties and government. The fact of Ukraine's domination by foreign countries formed a perception of separation between politicians and people. In other words, Ukrainians do not identify themselves with authorities as they were governed by foreigners in the past.

Despite that, there is a stable 60-70% turnout at elections. Yuliya Bidenko, PhD in Political Science and expert for "Team Europe", initiated by EU Delegation to Ukraine, explains that "on the one hand, Ukrainians regard elections as the main instrument for changing elites, but on the other - unconventional actions appeared to be efficient for that as well. As Ukrainians are ready to protest against elites they are, in the main, not interested in everyday participation in policy-making."

Sometimes it seems that the lives of citizens and the world of politics are two parallel universes that had loose connections with political ideologies.

Political leaders and their parties were not building their ideologies on the world-renown left-right spectrum. Therefore, we can assume that most Ukrainian political parties are political projects. It is interesting that during the last presidential race 4 out of 5 so-called new parties were simply re-named and assigned to other leaders.

Alongside this, the majority of Ukrainians have high expectations of political elites, but at the same time apathy. Interestingly, Yuliya Bidenko, PhD in Political Science and expert for "Team Europe", initiated by EU Delegation to Ukraine, outlines that post-Soviet countries are not typical areas that can be described in terms of competition of classical ideologies. Taking Ukraine's particularity, we can see that the multi-party system formally presents political organizations with very different ideas, but in reality there are up to eight or ten projects based on personal leadership and strong connections with oligarchs. She emphasizes that in order to get elected, these parties played with mottos and statements that lay in between several ideological dilemmas which shaped Ukrainian political discourse for decades: attitudes to the Soviet past and current relations with Russia, European choice, national and social issues.

Two democratically-driven revolutions have added positive characteristics to the behavior of citizens in the existing political culture.

First and foremost, the Orange Revolution was the first event in Ukraine's independent history that united such a large number of Ukrainians. It was the first expression of Ukrainians' strivings for democracy. The Orange Revolution was a push towards outlining a national idea but influenced by fragmentation of society led it to a polarization of East and West. Interesting enough, the Orange Revolution became a push for the emergence of a national idea. Ukrainians were united and empowered by their yearning for change. Unfortunately, the revolution's leaders failed to deliver on their promises, which lead to the disappointment of the population.

After Euromaidan Ukrainians were clear about their pro-European interests. Followed by Russia aggression, Ukraine defined itself during these events, leaving no room for the pro-Russian vector.

It was a boost for Ukrainian national identity and integration into the European community. Currently, 57% of Ukrainians are willing to join the EU, while 44% -- NATO, according to a study by the Center for Sociological and Marketing Research Socis. There is still some gap between West and East, as the EU choice is relevant for 75.9% and 31.5% of the population, respectively.

Finally, some elements of civil society emerged. In particular, activism, voluntarism and social entrepreneurship. According to the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, more than a half of the population values the need and importance of civic organizations. Moreover, the number of people ready to fund NGOs increased by almost 20% after the revolution. At the same time, there are still visible elements of paternalism as starting from 2008 just 8% of people are highly involved in civil activities on a daily basis. Almost one in every three Ukrainians does not believe in the efficiency of such organizations and regard the state as responsible for solving problems.

Campaigns of the 2019 presidential race engulfed every Ukrainian house, but has it actually changed the political consciousness of citizens?

The 2019 presidential race began with a record number of candidates. In addition, it is unique in terms of promotional strategies and edge-cutting methods of communication. Firstly, the poor knowledge of political processes on the part of Ukrainians has resulted in an extreme wave of populism: 57% of Ukrainians assume that the president is responsible for everything in the country. Candidates were promising things that are completely beyond the president's powers. By contrast, Zelensky promised almost nothing except himself. He represents a new type of populism with no policy, but a candidate as a brand. For decades politicians seemed completely different from the people; while Zelensky was, vice versa, presented as a straightforward person, someone like you or your friend. The building block here is that politicians are no more than servants of the people. Secondly, the hunger for new faces and radical changes was crucial. It will also impact parliamentary elections, which is a significant opportunity to finally reboot the political "spiral of death".

Zelensky had a specific electoral campaign that forced Poroshenko to look for alternative ways of self-promotion. The second round of the presidential election was more like a show. Especially, when candidates released video appeals to each other in the format of social media challenges. Another peculiar aspect of this round is political debates. The dates in the second round were also distorted. Debates were mostly built on mutual accusations, which is not appropriate for this format. Most citizens were busy with infotainment during the electoral process that they forgot about the true challenges that Ukraine now faces. Therefore, Yuliya Bidenko emphasizes that education for democracy, critical thinking and media literacy are really important and should be implemented as part of the primary and secondary school curriculum. The other important thing is the responsibility of media outlets and proper communications between the authorities and civil society. There was a lot of information available on legislation, reforms and budget spending, but in the main voters were triggered by doubtful media messages.

After the presidential elections, Ukrainian political culture has acquired striking new characteristics that will influence the parliamentary election to be held this year.

Ukrainians are indeed hungry for new faces in politics, which is an excellent chance for new people to get immersed, but they also have very high expectations of them. Besides, after such an exciting presidential race, it will be harder to catch people's attention. Taking into account the knowledge gap in governance and democracy, there is still a significant risk that parties will take advantage of people and focus on populistic promises. Emotionalism already prevailed over rationalism during the presidential race, that is a pressing trend for a country at war. With that in mind, civic organizations and their activities during an electoral process are necessary. Ukraine should stake on its chosen path of reforms, as work on developing the political culture, which is a process that will probably never end.

This article was prepared with support from the International Renaissance Foundation

Analyst at UkraineWorld and Internews Ukraine

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