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23 March, 2017  ▪  Ivan Halaichenko

Time for a strong middle-class party

What is needed for Ukraine to have a political force that is not linked to oligarchs

Over the years, The Ukrainian Week has spilled considerable ink over the lumpen oligarchic regime that emerged in Ukraine over the first decade of independence. It led to a distorted system of redistribution of wealth and influence on the country’s political and economic system, where the key players are a handful of oligarchs who control capital, corporate assets and ultimately politics, the press and so on. Their primary interest is to have everybody else dependent on them, to work at their enterprises, to enjoy marginal wages, and obediently support whatever the oligarchs decide. This model is obviously ineffective and unsustainable, wasting the country’s potential and opportunities and basically draining it of resources. In fact, this is what happened in Ukraine.

Getting out of this vicious cycle depends on having a powerful middle class: people with property, normal incomes and a clear civic position, what make them independent of the oligarchs and capable of their own decisions and actions, including participation in policy-making and oversight of those in power.

Over time, Ukraine’s middle class grew strong enough to become the driver behind both Maidans. Today, its members are a notable force that supports a powerful volunteer movement, works in government at various levels, defends its interests directly, and is an opinion leader. However, it has not reached a critical mass of influence, while the lumpen-oligarchic system has not yet been overcome but continues to manifest itself, both in government and in the opposition. This can be seen in the closed way that decisions are made and in the schemes that feed the kleptocracy, and in the ways it continues to try to shore up its positions or to come to power using populist means—promising impoverished voters what it cannot and will not provide.

And so we are hearing more and more calls for a new politics in Ukraine: the coming of new faces, the emergence of a middle-class party that could come to power and establish rules that will help the country freely develop. Still, most of those who write about this completely accurately portray the situation as it is today, but then switch to the traditional Ukrainian call for “unity.” Equally traditionally, these calls are ignored.

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The issue is not only and not so much one of “personal ambitions,” “individual mentality” and “countering the oligarchs.” In planning the establishment of a strong middle-class party, a series of objective factors need to be taken into account and efforts need to be directed, not towards the unrealistic or the abstract, but to very specific actions that are possible to carry out—even if they seem humdrum, unspectacular and require personal effort.

The first component is financial. To set up and support a party, and run an election campaign takes money. Expert estimates are that every year between elections for an active party that communicates with its voters and organizes work at the local level costs around US $3-5 million, and it has to come continuously to motivate participants in the political process. For an oligarch, this is pocket cash, but for the middle class, it’s serious money, especially since it’s an investment that does not offer immediate returns and often simply feeds the party organization.

That alone is enough to annoy middle and medium-large enterprises that are not used to being what seems to them to be spendthrift. And so mid-sized enterprises, which were capable of financing the sotni or “hundreds” on the Maidan and is currently carrying the weight of the volunteer movement, is fairly cool about this kind of prospect of financing a party. Fronting an election campaign is still reasonable, but “tossing out” that kind of money on an annual basis does not appeal.

A second component is joining forces and resources. This is not the abstracted “Unite, my brothers,” but mutual support in specific situations that will logically grow into common civic and political action—provided that people can overcome the tendency to fall out over trivial issues. In a situation where the east is engaged in war with the aggressor, when the old administrative system is in collapse internally, while a new one is only taking shape—often not very effectively—, there’s ample reason to take up this alternative. How often has it been said about Ukraine that the poor business climate is not so much because of high taxes or even widespread corruption, but because of the unpredictability of the rules, the unfairness of the judiciary, and the arbitrariness of oversight agencies. The answer to this might just be for businesses to join forces with experts and journalists in order to beat off the brazen tax inspector and prosecutor, and the insufficiently lustrated official, and to force the judge to act in accordance with the law during a court hearing or to admit corruption. Instead of a slew of “little compromises” with what amounts to extortionists, it’s possible to organize independently and ally with others. With time, such clusters of allies can grow into the core of a viable civic and political force.

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The third component is coordination. Ukrainians live in a networked society: we trust each other more or those who are similar to us than we do socio-political institutions. Horizontal or even “diagonal” cooperation between sectors, such as business and the local community, can be remarkably effective but is generally not long-lasting. To put it on a permanent basis and ensure sustained sharing of resources and mutual support, there needs to be a common goal for joint action. This kind of coordination among various independently organized groups can take place in order to, say, lobby for non-monopolized, transparent rules, that is, to move towards de-oligarchization, and in time, to institute strict monitoring and pressure to make sure that these are all enforced.

This is where inter-sectoral cooperation comes in: getting the support of medium and large non-oligarchic business behind experts and activists who are capable of drafting proper legislation, of lobbying for its enactment, and monitoring its implementation.

This brief would be incomplete without yet another component, leadership. In Ukraine, who the leader is, is significant for a political party because this person’s qualities tend to be reflected across the party; they motivate voters to decide whether to support the political force or not. Still, top-down leadership is a path that has been well-worn by now. Only oligarchs are in a position to hand out a lot of money quickly and that means commitments and compromises. At the same time, leadership from below or a plethora of leaders will take a long time and will have little chance of succeeding: launching a relative unknown is neither easy nor cheap. So a compromise might be to invite to the leadership a personality whose professionalism and personal character are above reproach. Both aspects are important: the leader has to bring new values to bear, nor old habits, while also understanding the ins and outs of management. Someone whose ignorance will allow others free rein behind their façade is dangerous for a country at war.

In short, all those who want to see a powerful middle-class party come to the fore should focus their attention and actions on these practical issues. According to the Constitution, the next elections are due in 2019. That’s time enough.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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