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23 February, 2019  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

“Can’t get no satisfaction...”

Why Ukrainians think the situation in their country is worse than it really is and what can be done about this

Today’s Ukrainians can, without exaggeration, be called a society of the dissatisfied. Last year, 70% of them were certain that things were moving in the wrong direction in their country and only 18% thought that things were generally going well. Moreover, this is a stable trend. The level of dissatisfaction was on the upswing long before the Euromaidan: in 2010, 51% expressed dissatisfaction with the government, but by mid-2013 that had grown to 66%, according to a Razumkov poll. In 2014, on a wave of post-revolutionary euphoria, dissatisfaction rolled back a little, to 58%, but the belief that the country was moving in the wrong direction started to grow again, going from 67% in 2015 to 74% by 2017, according to a DIF poll.

For politicians, these kinds of numbers come in handy to use against incumbents, implying that those in power are not capable of doing what’s necessary and it’s time for a change. That a country’s political leadership needs to rotate from time to time in order for the society to develop is clear, but the question is how this takes place and what principles underlie the decision to change it. For one thing, voter dissatisfaction is not an entirely reliable criterion, given the catastrophic lack of satisfied individuals across the globe. Indeed, an Ipsos study of data from 25 countries on different continents in 2016 showed that 62% of voters were convinced that their countries are moving in the wrong direction. What’s more, western countries demonstrated far more dissatisfaction: 88% in France, 73% in Sweden and 71% in Germany. But the other point is that a more careful look at public opinion shows that the dissatisfaction of Ukrainians is a very controversial indicator.

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Based on what sociologists say, Ukrainians are certain that the situation is getting worse every year. For instance, 67% of them thought the results for 2018 were negative, noting a relative improvement only in the country’s defense capabilities and its international image. Everything else, from the state of healthcare to crime levels, people think is only getting worse. In 2017, 69% of the population was pessimistic, whereas in 2016, 73% were according to DIF. If we trust public opinion, then it appears that Ukraine has been rapidly rolling toward an abyss for many years now and is now about as bad as it was in the ruinous 1990s, if not worse.

Fortunately, Ukrainian sociologists have a variety of instruments at their disposal that allow a more in-depth look at the public mood. The first of these is the Social Well-Being Index, which has been tracked in Ukraine since 1995. This index is calculated on the basis of a comprehensive survey dedicated to how sufficient the individual respondent finds one aspect or another, starting with money, food and clothing and ending with self-realization, social recognition and so on. The more the respondent feels that these elements are insufficient, the lower their index. 40 points equals a 0 index: anything lower suggests that the person generally feels bad, while anything higher suggests that they feel generally good.

Since the mid 2000s, this index has fluctuated around 35 points, which sociologists consider a highly unsatisfactory level. The worst level, 33.7, was recorded during the first big financial crisis in 1998. The index began improving starting in 2004, when the first wave of revolutionary euphoria the index hit 37.3, rising to 38.3 in 2006 and 39.4 in 2008. At that point, the index began to slip again, but in 2014, on the second wave of revolutionary euphoria, Ukrainians once again drew nearer to the level of normalcy, 39.5, according to the NAS Institute of Sociology. It would seem that, between the war, inflation and political instability, Ukrainians should have fallen into dark despair, but that was not the case. Despite everything, in 2016, the Social Well-Being Index dipped just a bit, leveled off in 2017, and began to inch upwards in 2018. In fact, 2018, was the first time since independence that this index reached a positive 40.7.

What’s interesting that this developed to the accompaniment of complaints about life growing worse on all sides, the country’s “wrong” direction, and so on. It turns out that Ukrainians keep complaining year after year about decline while their own sense of their lives has been slowly improving.

Of course, it’s not a matter of mass insincerity or the inaccuracy of polls. These same polls show that people tend to evaluate the state of their country as worse than their personal state would suggest. An even more obvious confirmation of this comes from two indicators: the Personal Well-Being Index and the Societal Well-Being Perception Index. The first index reflects how people assess their own material, health, moral, emotional and so on state, while the second one reflects how they assess the overall situation in the country. The methodology allows the two indices to range from -100 to +100 points as the upper and lower limits. The latest results, from a KIIS poll in May 2018, also showed considerable inconsistency between these two indices. Where people assessed their own well-being as a not-high, but nevertheless positive 6 points, they assessed the situation in the country as a whole as a highly negative -46 points. Nor can this discrepancy be written off as an effect of the war, as it was evident well before the war. For instance, in February 2014, Ukrainians gave their personal well-being 8 points whereas they gave the state of the country -40. What’s more, changes in personal well-being don’t necessarily reflect in the assessment of the state of the country. For instance, in 2012, 2013, and 2014, the individual index rose substantially, from 1 to 8 points, while the country index improved only marginally: -41, -40 and -39. Of course, there is a correlation, but the overall assessments have a huge gap: where the personal index of well-being improved by 14 points over 2016-2018, the national index rose only 7 points in the KIIS polls.

As to the reasons for this discrepancy, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology has cautiously theorized that the “predominantly negative balance of reporting on the situation in Ukraine in the press” may have a serious impact. It’s hard not to agree with such an assessment because a significant part of the domestic media really does “sin with spin”, whether it’s the result of political bias or the drive to gain audience with exaggerated headlines. Without any doubt, the hybrid war against Ukraine is also having a serious impact, where disinformation and spin are used to destabilize Ukrainian society and to sow distrust and pessimism.

But media is equally clearly not the only influence to blame. The fact that Ukrainians tend to see the glass as half-empty rather than half-full is also the result objective historical realities. It’s more than just a matter of the overly high expectations that inevitably arise after a revolution and are equally inevitably disappointed. In 2014, Ukraine entered a period of high turbulence: war, loss of territory, sudden economic decline, and other familiar circumstances forged in the minds of Ukrainians an overall impression that colossal threats hang over their country. Moreover, the scale of these threats is such that any improvement in personal well-being seems insignificant, accidental—and completely unrelated to an improvement in the overall situation in the country. In this sense, Ukrainians seem to be living simultaneously in two worlds: on one hand, there’s their daily lives, and on the other, a dangerous world “out there” that most of them hear about only on the news.

In addition, the tendentiousness of public opinion is also influenced by the reform process taking place in the country. The declared course towards change in Ukraine has run against the fact that change takes time and so is happening more slowly than expected. The difference between demand for changes and their actual pace is enough to bring up an entire spectrum of strongly negative feelings. But within the country, there’s also a serious struggle going on between forces that are either incapable of or uninterested in completing reforms and those who want to be drivers of change. In their search for support among ordinary Ukrainians, reformist forces communicate with voters in a radically mobilized style. It’s no secret that, in additional to detailed information about problems, a certain level of alarmism and radical rhetoric, even open demagoguery, are used – in short, everything so as not to let public attention slip. In general, this is a completely appropriate battle strategy, and really the only possible one. And it has led to results: at least oligarchs and corruption always top the lists of threats that Ukrainians consider important, according to DIF and Razumkov polls.

But one side effect of this mobilizing strategy is a distortion of public impressions about the scale and depth of various problems. For instance, although there is broad concern over corruption, the number of Ukrainians who have run into it at least once a year has declined substantially over the last decade, from 67% to 41%. What’s more, according to the KIIS poll, it’s largely concentrated these days in healthcare, which is still in the process of being restructured and reformed. 

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In this sense, when Ukrainians complain about widespread decline, they are largely repeating general impressions that do not necessarily correspond to their personal feelings and experience. The level of information that the average Ukrainian has about the state of affairs in the country is mediocre – at best. For instance, polls have shown that 55% of the population has an idea of the dollar exchange rate, about 20% are aware of the average salary in their oblast and across the country, only 11% know what the inflation rate is, and only 9% the level of joblessness. Indeed, other than the exchange rate, the quality of informedness is extremely low and people’s ideas have barely any relation to the real numbers, according to Social Monitoring and the Yaremenko Ukrainian Institute of Social Research (UICD) polls from 2017. All this offers a huge space for pessimistic fantasies.

None of this is especially catastrophic. A population that is ill -informed and makes confused estimations, that believes in stereotypes and is influenced by political slogans such as “genocidal utility rates,” “crushing poverty,” and so on – all this is typical of most societies. The question is what the consequences might be when this dissatisfaction is used for political aims. Ideally, the energy of mass outrage should be used to resolve the most pressing problems and to eradicate the most unacceptable phenomena. However, as history has shown repeatedly, the energy of just anger can be used not just by reformers but also by those who have completely opposite goals in mind.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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