* Ukraine’s March and October 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections will represent a watershed in the country’s history.
They will be the second set of elections following those held in 2014 after the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity, during Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine and when the EU and Ukraine had signed an Association Agreement, or enlargement-light providing integration without membership.
If reformers win the 2019 elections, as they did in 2014, Ukraine will have passed Samuel Huntington’s (1991) two-turnover test of elections changing governments without a collapse of the democratic order. Two elections won by reformers taking Ukraine through to 2024 would place the country on an irreversible path of European integration and movement out of the Russian sphere of influence, or what Moscow describes as the Russian World (Russkiy Mir) (Suslov 2018).
Opinion polls show the battle line in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections will not be between “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian” candidates, as was the case in four out of the six previous elections, but rather between reformers and populists.
The pro-Russian camp disintegrated in response to four years of President Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocracy in 2010-2014 and Russian military aggression since 2014 (Kudelia and Kuzio 2015). The Party of Regions, which monopolised power in eastern and southern Ukraine disintegrated while its satellite, the Communist Party was banned under one of the four 2015 de-communisation laws which outlawed Communist (Soviet) and Nazi totalitarian symbols. In next year elections, President Petro Poroshenko will face leading candidates who are all populists – Yulia Tymoshenko, Anatoliy Grytsenko, Oleh Lyashko, Vadym Rabinovych, and Yuriy Boyko. Since 2014, the main drivers of reforms in the Ukrainian parliament have been President Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Popular Front factions, which together include 220 MPs.
With populists leading in Ukrainian polls, it is important for scholars and policy makers to compare populism in Ukraine and Europe and analyse their critical discourse. Populists have long been present in Ukrainian politics and existed on both sides of the “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian” divide up to 2014. One major factor giving populists in Ukraine greater electoral capacity is the weakness of political parties (Kuzio 2014), a factor common to all post-Soviet states (with the possible exception of the three Baltic states).
Diverse scholarly literature on populism has attempted to grapple with a vague concept that encompasses both the left and right of the political spectrum. Most of the scholarly work on populism has focused on Latin America but with the rise of populist nationalism more recently this has expanded to Europe, including post-communist central-eastern Europe. But, there has been very little written on populism in Ukraine (Kuzio 2010, 2012) and the former USSR (Eke and Kuzio, 2000).
Populism in Ukraine, and the former USSR, displays characteristics that are commonly found in Europe as well as those that make it different. This article first discusses how populism in Ukraine does not possess four characteristics commonly found in European populists (Glahn). These characteristics include hostility to immigration, electorally popular populist-nationalists, anti-Islamic xenophobia, and the EU viewed as a threat to national sovereignty.
- Immigration is not an issue in Ukrainian elections because the country is a transit route for migrants seeking to travel to western Europe. This is one, but not the only reason why populist-nationalists are unpopular.
- In seven parliamentary elections held since 1994, nationalists have only been elected on a single occasion in 2012 when the Svoboda (Freedom) party won ten percent, far lower than for populist-nationalists in many EU member states. Nationalists did not win seats in the October 2014 elections during the year that Russia launched its military aggression against Ukraine.
- Patriotism rather than ethnic nationalism is more prevalent in Ukraine with popular opinion showing high levels of negativity to Russian leaders but not to Russian citizens.
- The above is often ignored by scholars writing from a pro-Russian perspective on the Ukraine-Russia crisis who are prone to exaggerating the strength and influence of “Ukrainian nationalism” while denying nationalism as a ruling political force in Vladimir Putin’s Russia (Sakwa 2017: 127, 155, Kuzio 2018c).
Hostility to Islam and migrants from Islamic countries is not an issue in Ukraine as migrants do not seek asylum in Ukraine and there is no large Islamic community. Ukrainian dissidents in the Soviet era and contemporary democrats and nationalists have long been allies of Crimean Tatars in what they perceive as their common anti-Russian struggle. Crimean Tatar leaders have been elected to parliament in Rukh (abbreviation for Popular Movement for Restructuring), Our Ukraine and the Poroshenko bloc. Since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and repression of Crimean Tatar leaders and institutions their alliance with Ukraine has grown stronger (Kuzio 2018c).
Anti-EU sentiment in Ukraine was low and has dramatically fallen since 2014. Antipathy to the EU was found among supporters of Ukraine joining the CIS Customs Union (since 2015 the Eurasian Economic Union) but support has collapsed to under ten percent as a consequence of Russia’s military aggression. Support for Ukraine to adopt the “Russian model of development” is very low with 69-71 percent opposed to this throughout Ukraine, including 56 percent of Russian speakers. Ukrainian nationalists are negatively disposed towards LGBT rights which they see as being imposed upon Ukraine by the EU. Nevertheless, they do not attack the EU or Ukraine’s path of European integration. Ukrainian nationalists differ from their European counterparts in being pro-NATO and not anti-American.
For Ukrainian democrats and nationalists, the threat to their country’s sovereignty comes from Russia, not the EU. The collapse of Russian soft power is particularly noticeable among Ukrainian youth, representing the future of the country, two thirds of who believe Ukraine and Russia are in a state of war. Similar views of Ukraine and Russia at war can be found among all age groups in Ukraine with the highest among young people and lowest among the over 60s. Widespread opposition to Ukraine adopting the “Russian model of development” is an outgrowth of Russia associated by Ukrainians with “aggression” (65.7 percent), “cruelty” (56.9 percent) and “dictatorship” (56.9 percent).
Six other issues commonly found in European populists are also found among Ukrainian populists.
First, anti-globalisation has not yet been an election issue for post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine. Nevertheless, as Pierre Ostiguy (2017) writes, in dividing the population into “corrupt” elites and the “people,” populists often accuse the former of being controlled by foreign powers. “Pro-Western” (Tymoshenko, Grytsenko, Lyashko) and “pro-Russian” populists (Rabinovych, Boyko) criticise the IMF for imposing heavy demands on the government in return for financial assistance. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland (Batkivshchina) party, Radical Party (led by Oleh Lyashko) and the Opposition Bloc (former Party of Regions) routinely attack the IMF. “Today global financial clans have infiltrated our National Bank of Ukraine, ministries and departments, and have usurped at least 60% of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
This external management is taking place through Ukraine’s puppet leadership” Tymoshenko said. Typically, Tymoshenko is vague about who these interests are in order to maintain her “pro-Western” image she has to stress she is not anti-American or anti-EU.
Second, radical rhetoric against corrupt elites and the “establishment.” Cas Muddes’ (2004) definition of populism is, “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”
Tymoshenko, who is often described as Ukraine’s leading and long-term populist, has always used radical rhetoric against “corrupt” authorities and oligarchs.
Tymoshenko said during the XII National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC earlier this year that “we should love God and love people. It’s a simple answer” with presumably her understood as being God fearing and all other Ukrainian politicians as Godless.
Anti-corruption rhetoric is central to European and Ukrainian populist discourse. While Ukraine’s politicians routinely attack corruption and oligarchs the weakness of Ukrainian political parties has ensured their only source of funding is big business. This has produced low levels of public trust in the anti-corruption claims found in programmes of presidential candidates and political parties. Tymoshenko, for example, has only participated in 55 per cent of votes on corruption and as low as 34 per cent on banking reforms and 13 per cent on energy, two sectors in Ukraine traditionally rife with corruption.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: e-ir.info