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29 June, 2018  ▪  Iryna Bekeshkina

Iryna Bekeshkina: “We’ve never had this kind of existential political crisis before”

Sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina tells The Ukrainian Week why populism is on the rise in Ukraine and what is influencing Ukrainian voters most of all

Interviewed by Andriy Holub

Some sociologists are saying that the tendency towards paternalism among Ukrainians is on the wane. What are your thoughts?

— I don’t agree with that view. Politicians are constantly fostering the inclination towards paternalism. For instance, there are always lots of promises coming from them and people continue to believe at least some of them. But I also don’t agree that the trend towards paternalism is something Ukrainians inherited from the USSR. Yes, during the soviet era the state took responsibility for absolutely everything. For instance, even if you had the money, you couldn’t buy an apartment that provided more than 13.65 sq m of living space for every member of the family. Of course, there were always exceptions to the rule: the state could provide housing “for services rendered.” For that reason, paternalistic attitudes were very strong as an objective assessment of the situation. The state was responsible for everything and provided everything.

In the 1990s, however, this was destroyed. The government gave nothing to anyone and did not provide anything. People survived as they could and placed little faith in the state. You either fended for yourself or everything was lost. At this point, people began to engage in business, trading, and so on. Paternalistic attitudes began to spread again as political competition increased. But an auction of promises inevitably results in people believing in at least some of them. Even people with a good dollop of common sense end up expecting the government to provide something—anything. Paternalism again: “The state should give us something, because otherwise what’s it there for?” And politicians play up to this. Many voters have a hard time realizing that you need to really count on yourself first of all—even if you’re a pensioner. I get some serious criticism for this, but, in my opinion, a relatively young pensioner can always find a way to make a little money on the side to cover medications and so on—at least in a big city.

Populism seems to be growing as well. How new a phenomenon is that?

— It’s the same thing: the more competitive politics gets, the more populism emerges. And it’s not just in Ukraine. Populism is on the rise in the West as well, because the competition among politicians keeps growing. When there are no clear leaders among politicians, they tend to resort to populism. You can see it even among parties whose ideologies don’t tend to be populist. But there’s a fundamental difference: it’s one thing to resort to populism in a country where the middle class is in the majority and another entirely when it’s a poor country like Ukraine.

Consider the recent referendum in Switzerland regarding a guaranteed minimum income, where every citizen was to receive CHF 2,500, around US $2,500, every month, whether they worked or not. The vast majority of Swiss voters, 77%, voted against. They understand who would be paying for such a benefit: those who were working. I can imagine a similar referendum here. Even if the government were to offer only UAH 2,000 [about US $75], most Ukrainians would vote in favor, simply because it’s a freebie. This is why populism is especially dangerous in poorer countries.

Have any surveys been run on the subject of a guaranteed basic income in Ukraine?

— There have been similar surveys but the question was framed a bit differently, such as, what do voters prefer: higher taxes in exchange for full healthcare coverage, education and so on—or, on the contrary, lower taxes in exchange for taking on responsible for or at least partly paying for medical services and education. An absolute majority favored the first option. I think that a lot of Ukrainians think that they don’t pay any taxes at all if they aren’t engaged in business.

RELATED ARTICLE: Deliberately undecided

How will the material standing of voters affect the outcome of the next election?

— It will have a direct impact on the outcome. We decided to analyze the ways in which this campaign differs from previous ones. Earlier, Ukraine was, roughly speaking, split into two groups, based on geopolitical orientation to the West or to Russia. The country was likewise divided geographically. Right now, this can still be seen somewhat, with candidates like Sadoviy, Boyko, Rabinovych and Hrytsenko. At the same time, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko enjoy a certain amount of support both in the western regions and in the eastern ones. How do they differ? A relative majority of about 20% of the poorest voters, Ukrainians who have to economize even on food, is planning to vote for Tymoshenko. And, by contrast, a relative majority of the better-off, also about 20%, is planning to vote for Poroshenko. In other words, those who feel that their lives are more-or-less normal right now are prepared to support the current Administration.

Would you say that the current president’s ratings are a vote on the quality of reforms?

— I think it’s more a vote on the state of Ukrainian society. Obviously, it partly also reflects people’s opinions of reforms. Had they been more successful, the situation in the country would also have been more different after four years. I understand that any kind of reform takes time, but people need to feel the difference. For example, how come healthcare reforms only began now? Anti-corruption reforms have barely started, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, the agencies that are supposed to deal with this issue have been set up, but realistically we haven’t seen any results from their efforts, so far. There have been attempts, widely publicized arrests, but there’s no evidence that the level of corruption has gone down. People are aware of all this.

On the other hand, there have also been positive changes, such as decentralization. At this point, we have to also look at media politics. When we ask people whether they are happy with the quality of information that they get on reforms, only 5% say that they are. The situation really needs a proper assessment. The absolute leader in sources of information for most Ukrainians is television: 85% get all their news from it. Yet, how often do you see anything about reforms on TV? Not often, which is why expert circles and ordinary Ukrainians assess reforms somewhat differently. Experts give them a middling mark, while voters give them a much worse one.

Have you ever separately looked at the apparent coexistence of European aspirations and a pull towards corruption in most Ukrainians?

— I can’t really say whether there’s any correlation, but battling corruption “at the top” is impossible without changing attitudes at the grassroots level. Clearly, if there are those who take, there are those who give. Our research has shown that nearly a third of the population who consider corruption a bad thing aren’t against justifying it sometimes to reach a particular goal. And a third of Ukrainians, interestingly enough mostly in the western oblasts, thinks that corruption is a national tradition. In short, people are very impatient with corruption when it’s “at the top,” but very tolerant of their own participation in it when they need to resolve some issue—even though the reasoning behind corruption is the same! So where are those new people “at the top” suppose to come from if there aren’t any of them at the bottom?

Most public institutions are facing a crisis of confidence among Ukrainians. How are public opinion polls faring?

— It’s hard to say. At one point, people trusted polls a lot more than they trusted politicians, almost 50%. What it is today would have to be measured.

What about the problem with fake polls in the run-up to elections, as used to happen in the past?

— Hold on, that’s nothing to do with the polls. It’s an issue with media that publicize things that don’t exist.

Is it any better now?

— Why? We’re already seeing polls like that, but the approach is different this time. They claim that the surveys were run by western pollsters. The source appears to be a western site, but the information written in English on the supposedly British site is full of basic mistakes. Yet they got away with it. UNIAN, which is one of the top national news agencies, UNN, Komsomolska Pravda in Ukraine, and Fakty all published identical materials based on it. After I posted a comment in Facebook, people began to pay attention. Still, when I checked UNIAN recently, the article was still there. For reasons of its own, the agency didn’t remove it.

RELATED ARTICLE: Civic passivity

Is the publication of non-existent polls the only problem in the relationship between pollsters and the media?

— Headlines are upsetting as well. Sometimes they are spun so that they are completely unrelated to the actual content. In my opinion, there’s also a huge problem with ignorance among journalists. For instance, the difference between 6% and 5%, let alone 6.0% and 5.8%, is inconsequential in a survey. Who’s second and whose third means nothing when it turns out that all five of these candidates are actually second.

What number would you say matter most in the latest polls ?

— “Another candidate.” (Current number is 62% – Ed.)Even in those polls that show Vakarchuk and Zelenskiy. We’ve never had such an existential political crisis before. Except for 1999, in previous elections, when there were also a number of candidates at the same level, there were two leaders. Moreover, both had strong results, around 20-25% in the first round. Right now, the frontrunner has barely 10%, so what do we call that?

How much of this is a reflection of real demand for new leaders and how much of it is just a phrase?

— I would say it’s a cliché. When we asked respondents, 66% said there was a need for new leaders, but when we asked whether people actually saw such leaders, only 19% said yes. And when we asked people to actually name individuals who fit this role, not a single candidate got more than 2%.

What about the qualities of such a new leader? Was that asked?

— That’s the poll we’re undertaking right now and the results should be out within a week. Still, I suspect that nothing new will come of it. We once ran this kind of poll and most voters simply wanted to see an uncorrupt, honest individual.

How about Poroshenko in 2014? Was he a new leader?

— Yes, because he wasn’t even included in polls about candidates running for president, prior to 2013. The first time he appeared as a choice was October 2013, if I’m not mistaken, and he had around 3% at that point. Later on his ratings began to grow. In some sense, he was a new leader—or at least that was the perception among voters.

Another topic that’s being talked about these days is the television program, “New Leaders.”

— Yes, I’m on the supervisory board of this project. Everything is on a strictly voluntary basis. None of us is being paid although the program itself is taking a lot of time, especially for the people on the selection committee. Why did I agree to this? In the last while, I participated in a lot of different CSO forums in the regions and saw individuals who deserved to be called new leaders. Really interesting, smart, energized, successful folks that the rest of the country knows nothing about. Did you know that a number of enthusiasts in Chernihiv have been busy collecting used batteries and have over 300,000 already? Prior to this, they ran a promotional campaign and got educational institutions in the area to help them. Yet no one knew about this. Who, other than people living in Lviv, know that an IDP from Simferopol has set up a successful theater? Nobody. First of all, there are actually many examples like these. And these enthusiasts are worth promoting, especially so that others can see that things are not so bad. Secondly—and I want to emphasize that this is my personal conviction and not that of the project—, it’s this kind of people who should be going into politics and changing things.

To be honest, I was surprised by the response to the project. I had discussed this issue, among others, with the channel’s management. They asked me what the response was likely to be and I said that they should expect negative reactions from the political parties initially, because we would be showing alternatives precisely to them. In other words, here’s the kind of people who should be leaders! However, response has not come from the politicians. They are waiting and I have the impression that they will be busy trying to recruit people from the project to their ranks when it’s over. The same thing happened in the 2014 elections. A good crowd of civil activists was elected to the Verkhovna Rada that time. These folks were even able to pick and choose which party lists to go on. I guess that it will be the same now. The parties with spare slots on their lists are especially likely to be hoping to benefit.

Still, I don’t understand the response in the NGO sector. The supervisory board included Andriy Yermolayev, who may be partly connected to the previous regime, but the board has 32 members! How much of a say could he have ultimately had? Yet the social nets were filled with idiotic discussions that came down to claiming that New Leaders was a Serhiy Lyovochkin project! People supposedly have university degrees but they write nonsense like this.

To what extent does television itself generate exaggerated expectations that then turn to disillusionment?

— There’s definitely something to that. People want to believe that there are “God’s messengers on earth.” Then, when they discover that these “messengers” have flaws, that they are far from saintly, they become disenchanted. I would put it even more strongly: there are the activists, who are trying to get something done, and there are the onlookers, who are watching the process and trashing them, saying “That’s not Europe.” Still, it’s not worth getting upset over it. If you don’t want to be criticized, just don’t do anything. Personally, I’m a doer.

How decisive is television in Ukrainian politics today?

— Very. If you aren’t on the screen, you don’t exist. But in local elections, this is so far not yet true. In 2015, community activists were able to get onto local councils here and there. Not in a majority, but they’re there. I call this landing in foreign territory. These individuals can ask questions and let the public know what’s going on. They may not be able to decide anything but at least they are there. In fact, they have broken the monopoly in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. In the past, there was no one at all aside from Regionals and communists. Now we see community activists who once belonged to various parties... whoever they could agree with, that’s whose lists they would go on.

Isn’t this, in fact, why some Ukrainians see television as synonymous with the old system and completely reject it?

— True, but they are in a very small minority. I have come to the conclusion that there are people who simply live in Facebook. They think that FB users represent all of society. I remember how, prior to the 2012 elections, they were hurling insults at pollsters, accusing us of having “sold out” to Yanukovych and his regime, because who could possibly vote for Party of the Regions? And so they launched an online poll. There were quite a few respondents and Party of the Regions really did get only 5%. And then these people used those numbers to say that this was the result of an “honest” poll. But this was all their own camp, a convenient little echo-chamber. Some people prefer to live in this cozy little room and not bother trying to understand what a society is all about. They write that this program isn’t the way to raise young leaders, that this is all just a show, just entertainment, that we should be working with people at the local level. Of course, that’s also necessary, but who will vote for someone if they aren’t known? I repeat: If you aren’t on television, you aren’t in the public consciousness.

How much of a tendency do Ukrainians have to simply go with the majority, to support the most popular candidates simply because they are the most popular?

— If there really were such a trend, nobody would be voting for the minority, never mind for parties that the polls say have no chance of passing the threshold. But they vote. In the first round, voters tend to focus on the candidates they think are the best, regardless of their ratings. This can be seen during Rada elections when a party is below the threshold needed to gain seats. At that point, many voters begin to worry that their voice will be wasted. When a party is close to this threshold but hasn’t passed it, poll ratings are taken more seriously. I remember how party folks would run around with bags of money to pollsters and plead: “We don’t need a lot. Please at least do something within the margin of error.” But as one pundit put it, these ratings affect sponsors more than voters: should we or should we not invest in this party? I know that, in the run-up to an election, especially party elections, potential sponsors commission their own research to find out how many seats this or that party is likely to gain. The top spots in a party list cost a lot, but the farther down, the cheaper. What’s the point of paying for a top place if there’s a guarantee with a cheaper spot and the party will gain the necessary seats? They aren’t stupid. Better spend, say, $15,000 than lose hundreds of thousands.

You mentioned that the West vs Russia split has disappeared in Ukraine.

— I didn’t say it has disappeared but it definitely has gone down. There are new trends and new dividing lines, not just along regional lines but also in assessments of the state of the country and people’s own situations.

How possible is it to talk about a key, decisive aspect or is there no such thing?

— There is. When people are satisfied with the way things are going in their society, then they will vote for incumbents. Clearly not all, but this is a fairly typical thing for most communities. If the majority is unhappy, then they won’t support those in power. To me, it’s obvious that in the next round of elections, presidential and Rada, Ukrainians will be voting for the lesser evil. We can see that every candidate has a stable core of supporters who are impossible to influence either way. No scandals, no dirt, or anything of that nature. However, this core is not very substantial. The rest will largely decide based on the situation closer to the election.

With President Poroshenko, the situation in the country will matter the most. If it is more-or-less positive, if some critical social issues are resolved—the church is not one of them, in my opinion—, then voters will start thinking: ok, let’s give him another chance, to prevent something worse. If not, he will lose. How votes might be distributed among the remaining candidates is harder to predict. It’s important to remember that dirty tricks aren’t working right now because most voters are firmly convinced that politicians are all the same. When the offshore scandal [with the Panama Papers] first emerged, people kept asking me what was going to happen with this. And I kept answering: Nothing at all. Voters already had their suspicions and so this did not affect ratings in any negative way. Sure, people will start flinging dirt at each other and everyone will be blamed. They’re simply not used to campaigning in any other way.

I often hear the claim that the national mood hasn’t really changed much from 2013 if polls were to include occupied Crimea and Donbas. What are your thoughts on that?

— Oh, it would be different. After all, the biggest changes happened in the south and east of the country. If we even take just Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, Party of the Regions had a firm monopoly there of over 80% and the communists had the rest. They still have the majority but they aren’t a monopoly. You can see members of BPP, Batkivshchyna, Liashko’s Radical Party, and others on local councils. The ratings for the upcoming elections also testify to political plurality. Once PR was monolithic, but no longer. Moreover, this monolith has been taken down not only in politics but also in the foreign policy orientation of local voters. The “eastern vector” has collapsed.

Still, support for eurointegration hasn’t grown that much, although support for a union with Russia has declined steeply. Ukrainians who used to be oriented towards the Russian Federation tend to say that Ukraine doesn’t need to join anyone. As to NATO, it’s true that most of the opposition remains in the Donbas. But look at the numbers. In 2013, there was all of 0.3% support for membership in NATO in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, the equivalent of one person in 283. 94% were against. Now the majority is still against, but it’s only 50%. And 20% support the idea. There was a time when 20% support was all there was across the entire country. So there have been tectonic shifts there, too. Of course, we’re talking about the territory that is not occupied. But I’m confident that when the rest of the occupied territory returns to Ukraine, we will see changes there, as well.

BIO

Iryna Bekeshkina is a sociologist, executive director of Ilko Kucheriv Democratic initiatives Foundation. She graduated from Taras Shevchenko Kyiv University, and later earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy. Among her key interests is the study of trends in public opinion about domestic political processes, in particular, reforms in key areas, as well as problems of communication with the frontline territories of the Donbas.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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