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24 May, 2018  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

The art of the impossible

The opposition in Ukraine is mostly reactive and it chooses actions that will be most useful for criticizing the current Administration or gaining the attention of a specific part of the electorate. What Ukraine needs most right now is a consolidating program and a party that could present its own alternative for the country

The extreme fragmentation of voter sympathies, coupled with continuing enormous pent-up demand for new political forces that has been recorded in all polls lately signals that there are serious political problems brewing in Ukraine. If the current political class and the voter mood continue as is, these problems could start being felt very soon.

What surveys are demonstrating ever-more clearly is a kind of ideational disorientation and slipping coordinates, both among voters and among politicians themselves. In the past, these were based on an evident dichotomy between two camps: the pro-European and the pro-Russian. But the loss of its former positions in the second group has broken down this structure. Meanwhile, the political class remains a manifestation of the old discourse that bears no relationship either to the new realities within modern Ukraine, or to the geopolitical and geo-economic challenges facing the country—and growing more urgent with every passing day.

The fundamental problem in Ukraine is that neither those in power nor their opponents, who traditionally call themselves “the opposition,” actually have an understandable position, a vision of what they are doing and for what purpose—never mind at the national level or in relation to any of the country’s major population groups. Being in power is its own goal and not a means for presenting alternative policies. This makes it difficult for the society as a whole to establish some kind of political structure, divided into supporters of a center-right or center-left course for the country.

In the developed world, political parties at least try to carry out the policies that they promise during elections, if nothing else, in the interests of their own electorate, even if their opponents don’t accept it. Eventually there is a rotation and representatives of the opposite camp have a chance to demonstrate their alternative strategy. In Ukraine, instead of orienting themselves towards specific social groups, politicians promise to be all things to all people: increasing spending while cutting taxes, offering or maintaining fiscal benefits to various industries that are the foundation of the economy today while stimulating new the development of new industries, maintaining or introducing breaks on payroll taxes and social contributions for certain groups of employees that effectively cover most of the countries workers while maintaining free healthcare and education and improving protections for socially vulnerable groups... Who is eventually elected depends on the persuasiveness and personal charisma of the given politician.

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The absence of constructive programs outlining priority measures, the goals and the means for achieving them is the fundamental reason why today’s political class is so excessively—and artificially—fragmented. Because political thinking revolves around categories of personal interests or the interests of specific groups that favor this or that policy. The only anchor that finds a hold is whether a particular action or rhetoric matches the interests of preserving or gaining power with the purpose of using the instruments this provides for personal enrichment or that of the politician’s sponsors.

With no clear political position, actions tend to be reflexive and chaotic, while the opposition is mostly reactive and it looks for or chooses of initiatives or actions that will be most useful for criticizing the current Administration or gaining the attention of a specific part of the electorate. What’s more, approaches can change almost diametrically in the process of developing one theme or another, and the tug-o-war among the Administration’s opponents grows more aggressive as they compete for the same protest voter. Even those few opposition forces that actually have some vision of an alternative tend to focus not on promoting their own vision but on criticizing those currently in power, while some of the propositions they promulgate as an alternative are unsystematic, mutually exclusive, and even completely disconnected from reality.

This kind of situation requires that the media and opinion leaders shift their focus to stop playing up to protest moods and populist criticism and push voters to think in terms of the ever-more relevant question of the nation’s survival and how to move to a trajectory that will provide sustainable economic growth. What is needed is public debate not against but in favor of a clear program of change that will find support among a good majority of Ukrainians. There also needs to be understanding of the need to pay a reasonable price for the possibility to break out of the vicious cycle of degradation.

The largest possible number of Ukrainians need to develop an awareness that there is no such thing as a free lunch: when expenditures for one area or another grow, taxes have to be raised, whereas if we want the tax burden to be lightened, then something has to be cut. If budget spending on a certain part of the economy is limited, we need to be prepared to extend its funding directly to voters or find common alternative mechanisms for covering it, such as various types of insurance and so on. How decisions are made in a democracy is determined by the society itself, but that means understanding the cost and consequences, and being prepared to pay for them both directly and indirectly. Otherwise, exaggerated expectations, populist horse-races and demagoguery will only make the situation worse, along with the real standard of living, and will lead to the further deterioration of all the country’s life-support systems: from education and healthcare to public administration and services, law enforcement and the judiciary, public housing and utilities, and the environment.

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The politics of “for everything that’s good and against everything that’s bad” guarantees the swift and disastrous disenchantment of voters in those whom they chose within months of any election, because people aren’t prepared for the real policies that their elected representatives will follow. Constant demands or promises to increase spending are not accompanied by warnings about the need to simultaneously collect more taxes. On the other hand, initiatives to cut taxes, duties and excise are never accompanied by explanations of which budget expenditures will have to be reduced as a consequence. Roadworks? Education? Healthcare? Defense?

If reactive populism continues to dominate in Ukraine’s politics, the country will continue to fall behind economically, not just in relation to developed countries, but even in relation to most Asian and African countries. Meanwhile, a dangerous tendency to distrust the political class altogether is growing in Ukraine, which threatens the preservation of the state itself. What’s more, people don’t seem to understand that the problem lies not in the failure to carry out clearly impossible populist promises, but in the fact that such promises are made in the first place.

Resorting to reactive populism and obviously impracticable promises distracts attention from and hampers or actually blocks transformations that the country desperately needs. The opposition concentrates on resisting and countering reforms, feeding the widespread public misconception that it’s reforms that are the cause of their problems or of the worsening situation in one area or another. The new generation of politicians has been good at exploiting the inclination towards populism among a large portion of Ukrainians who are not very interested in the real intentions of politicians or their readiness to carry out promises. The imaginary “punishment” of the last political projects and their replacement by similar “new” ones ends up only being time lost for the country. Those setting these parties up and their sponsors assume from the start that they will be short-lived: they have Plans B and C ready in their back pockets, and are only concerned with making back whatever resources they invested in that brief period.

For instance, some Ukrainians believe that reforming or streamlining the education system will supposedly lead to its deterioration, reduced access or funding cuts. No one points out that the long-term degradation and pitiful funding of this branch, which is caused by completely other factors, is precisely what needs to change in order to save what is still salvageable and to make education more effective in the current conditions. The same can be said about the healthcare system and the pension system. Medicine has been chronically underfunded for decades. This has lowered the quality of services and forced people to pay for supposedly free medical treatment for all those years. Meanwhile, efforts to officially bring the sector in line with the long evident realities on the ground by separating what the state will pay for and what patients will have to cover are now being condemned as the reason behind reduced access to healthcare services!

Criticisms coming from opponents of these and other reforms that are being undertaken by the current government mainly due to outside pressure and are therefore inconsistent and unsystematic, although they could easily be more carefully thought through and comprehensive, are strictly of a reactive nature—“leave everything like it is, just throw more money at it”—, instead of offering more constructive and realistic alternatives that reflect the situation in Ukraine today. But such initiatives are not forthcoming and the fact that reforms are coming out of the pockets of ordinary Ukrainians, and will require greater tax and insurance contributions from them, is not being openly admitted. This suggests that opposition politicians are either don’t understand or are pretending not to understand that, should they come to power, they will continue to do the exact same as the current lot.

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The same can be seen with anti-corruption ideology, whose banner a slew of opponents of the government, if not the majority of them, keep claiming for themselves. Even some representatives of the current Administration are actively exploiting it. The idea of fighting corruption, generously fueled by the stirring up of envy and class hatred, could actually become that powerful universal mobilizing force that can win over a major part of the protest vote. Except that corruption has not been overcome in any country to this day: despite the cautious and stable traditions of their political spheres, from time to time major corruption scandals erupt in the most developed countries of the world—including the G7. Combating it is, after all, a domestic matter, similar to the mantras about “building communism” in the USSR: build all you want, but you’ll never build anything.

The world is filled with deeply corrupt countries, especially in Asia, which nevertheless have posted high growth rates for decades, and so, overcoming corruption cannot in any sense become a panacea or an agenda priority. In addition, real solutions to solve the problem actually don’t see punishment for corruption as playing a major role, if nothing more than because its very severity encourages those who depend on it to be dishonest in deciding whether to punish or turn a blind eye and thus establishes a closed caste of untouchables and mutual back-scratching. At the same time, while everyone’s focused on fighting corruption, very little attention is being paid to the less impressive but more effective destruction of its underpinnings. This requires boring but substantive reforms that would minimize or make it inconvenient or unjustifiably risky, including by raising the salaries of civil servants—a highly unpopular move for most voters—, replacing administrative mechanisms with market ones, and so on.

If the current trends persist in Ukraine’s political environment, the risk grows that the country will be enmired for decades to come in a swamp that will only reflect internal and external indicators without any understanding of the strategic purpose of development and plans for reaching it. This scenario is the most dangerous both in terms of Ukraine’s progress and in terms of its vulnerability to Russian and other manipulations. Right now, what Ukraine needs most is a consolidating program and a political party that could present its own alternative for the country. After coming to power on the basis of such a program, this party will be able to function as the pro-active political elite that is long overdue, both for domestic modernization and for implementing its own policy in the international arena. The need for a new, young Ukrainian force is felt more and more with every passing year—one that can offer an ideology of development founded on Ukraine’s own strengths, with a center-right platform in socio-economic matters and national consolidation based on a Ukrainian cultural foundation.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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