The 19th century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once wrote, “Every country has the government it deserves.” Some might have challenged that statement in 1811, when most countries were autocracies, but with a democratically elected government, whoever is elected does, indeed, say something about the people who voted them in – as well as about the country that made their victory possible.
That Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s victory was possible because of the protest mood among Ukrainian voters has been written about more than enough. But this mood has actually been there since before the country declared independence, so the result of last year’s elections seem like a delayed reaction to a very old problem. The high level, sometimes even record-high, of distrust among Ukrainians towards their governments that pollsters have reported on, year after year, was not just directed at whoever was the actual leader at any given time, but reflected a much deeper rejection of elites as such.
The belief that the political elite included only the richest and most powerful individuals took shape by the mid-1990s. Ukrainians began to see this elite as a closed club of the ultra-privileged. For instance, in a 1996 survey by the NAS Institute of Sociology, only 5% of Ukrainians believed that they had a chance to connect their children to the elite, while 83% thought that wealth and personal connections were the only way to get into the upper echelons of power. At the same time, this elite was not much respected by anyone: fewer than 2% of Ukrainians looked to their leadership to “understand where the truth lies and where the lies are in our society.” Indeed, more than 90% thought that those who gained positions of power stopped thinking about the public.
This estrangement between ordinary citizens and the country’s elite generated steady demand for anti-establishment populism. Over the three decades of independence, a slew of parties tried to fill this niche and nearly all top politicians played the protest card in their election campaigns, taking pot-shots at the “old guard.” In this sense, the Zelenskiy phenomenon is not unique. What’s surprising is that the first successful electoral mutiny took place only in 2019, and not sooner. However, in playing “the people’s guy who is going to crush of the old establishment,” Zelenskiy was responding to the deepest expectations of Ukrainian voters.
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The question is whether he will be able to maintain this image until the end of his term. For now, his mistakes and fumbles only confirm his essential difference from the country’s experienced but untrustworthy old guard. Indeed, this is far more convincing than the bicycle that he promised to ride to work... The procedural missteps that the president and his team occasionally make fall into the same category – and over the past 8-9 months, there have been quite a few of these. The most blatant example was how Zelenskiy baldly ignored the lustration law and appointed Andriy Bohdan his chief-of-staff. Journalists track these episodes closely and report on then, but they have raised far less public opprobrium than the opposition had hoped for.
The reason for this is not at all that voters are prepared to let their leader get away with whatever he wants. A November 2019 Democratic Initiatives Fund (DIF) poll reported that the land reform bill had only 24% support among Ukrainians, proving that Zelenskiy’s charisma has its limits. But Ukrainians are prepared to close their eyes to less serious – or less visible –violations, often simply because Zelenskiy himself is either unaware of how important these are or their real scale. When Zelenskiy “tasks” the Prosecutor General with something, that upsets the legal profession, but 36% of Ukrainians firmly believe that the president is the only source of power and the bearer of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Every 10th Ukrainian believes that the Head of State has the right to approve laws, and about the same number think that he appoints local government agencies. What’s more, 18.5% of Ukrainians say that the government can violate the Constitution if certain of its provisions are not in line with the public interest. Indeed, the number of Ukrainians who share this belief has nearly doubled in the last five years. This may partly be a reflection of the fact that only about 11% of Ukrainians have actually read the Constitution in its entirety, while 46% have never read any part of it, according to the 2019 DIF poll.
Zelenskiy’s humanitarian approach is also very symptomatic. Even during the election campaign, Dmytro Razumkov issued a statement from headquarters that linguistic, historical and religious issues would be put on the back burner until the war ended. Since then, the president has affirmed this policy on more than one occasion. The patriotism that he presented to Ukrainians in his New Year’s address was grounded only in citizenship, while his vision of a common future was expressed as a vague wish for a safe and comfortable life.
Unsurprisingly, the speech roused heated debate among politically active Ukrainians, because they saw all the basis of Ukrainian identity – language, culture, a common history and so on – as being put on the back burner. For some, this kind of paradigm is not appropriate for a country going through a period of active decolonization. Both patriotic and pro-Russian Ukrainians consider it important how streets are named and whose monuments will be erected or torn down. But the drivers of decolonization, as well as resistance to it, remain minorities. The average Ukrainian sees Zelenskiy’s formula for patriotism as completely acceptable. At least, it does not bring up any strong negative reaction.
Today, 83% of Ukrainians consider themselves patriotic, according to a 2019 Rating poll, but not all of them feel a strong need for decolonization. In a 2018 KIIS survey, half did not want to see Russian television channels banned, and 57% didn’t want Russian films and actors to be banned. Another 46% weren’t happy about Russian social nets being blocked, while 40% said that language quotas for radio and TV served no purpose. And so, when the government returned Svaty[The In-laws] to the air or suddenly withdrew the ban on a Swedish singer who toured occupied Crimea – in order to make a guest appearance in Vechirniy Kvartal, incidentally – many Ukrainians took it in stride.
What’s more, such attitudes are not exclusive to the eastern parts of the country: even in central Ukraine, 52% of those surveyed were against banning Russian television, while 60% didn’t want Russian films and actors to be banned. Decommunization was also seen quite ambiguously. Back in 2016, 36% of Ukrainians were against banning communist ideology in a Rating poll, while nearly half were against taking down statues of Lenin and nearly 60% did not want cities to be renamed. And so when the president called Ukrainians to unify by excluding controversial issues from public debate, it looked like a naive attempt to engage in nation-building based on common sense. For many Ukrainians, however, even if it’s not based on state-building know-how, it’s a completely acceptable compromise in which patriotism doesn’t require any paradigmatic shifts.
The fact that Zelenskiy has not moved away from his campaign image in the first eight months of his presidency is working in his favor. In the past, candidates made a show of adapting themselves to the ordinary masses, but Zelenskiy has not had to adapt. Moreover, his party, Sluha Narodu, has quite easily fit this “ordinary folks” image, as most of its MPs entered major politics literally off the streets. All this may have helped the new government maintain the image of inexperienced but determined reformers, but it can’t guarantee them political immortality. Unpopular reforms, dips in the economy and corruption scandals – not to mention a worsening situation at the front – are likely to spoil the ratings of the most folksy of “regular guys.”
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In the end, the Zelenskiy epoch will be just one more episode in the transition period of Ukrainian history. Still, he is the right person at the right time because he reflects the real state of Ukrainian society. It already has a real identity, but is still a little uncertain of the foundation and feels a bit scared of consistent domestic policies. Ukrainians are skeptical of their ruling elite, but in the emotional whirlwind of a protest mood, they are prepared to vote for people who are quite accidental. Afterwards, they’re prepared to forgive any incompetence, seeing it as a sign of decency and good intentions.
In the last five years, and really far longer, this part of Ukrainian society was viewed as entirely passive. In 2019, however, it took the bull by the horns. Most likely, this was happenstance, because the “unity of the east and west” that sometimes comes up during elections still lacks a solid foundation. Now, at least, it’s clear that, as Ukrainian society matures, it is becoming more complex. And that complexity will have to be mastered by those who claim the mantle of state leadership and national elite – not something for “kings for a day,” opportunists, or self-proclaimed authorities.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj