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13 March, 2019  ▪  Roman Malko

Hiding new faces

Why Ukraine’s parties are not social lifts and will never be, so unless they change fundamentally

Political activity is probably one of the most promising and successful types of business there is in Ukraine. Nothing matches it for short-term opportunities and dividends. The current campaign fever confirms this beautifully. Although pessimists keep saying that this business is slowly declining, that the old parties are running dry, that leader-based parties are a thing of the past, that new approaches and management models are the trend—primaries, social lifts and so on—, all of this is just empty words.

Even if the existing system is going through a mid-life crisis, it’s quite capable of living on for many years, having chewed to bits in its powerful jaws anything that constitutes a threat. No primaries, a feature that is very popular among the innovative parties, no transfusion of new blood, directly or otherwise, will make any difference. They are all illusory and are having no impact whatsoever. If someone is not comfortable with the new faces that have supposedly appeared in the last few years, the new political brands and new young teams that have sprung up like mushrooms after the rain—relax!

First of all, there is always a portion of coincidences that happen under the influence of specific events and can be mistaken for a sign of recovery and change. A revolution is one of those. But they are more like misunderstandings that are very quickly resolved. Harvard grads and expats in the civil service can confirm this very easily. Ditto for combat commanders in the legislature. The oligarchic genius is capable of a lot more to make sure that the system he set up is not reorganized in any way.

Secondly, there are clear markers that indicate the real or fake nature of innovations and even of existing structures: the presence and person of a sponsor or sponsors—politics is not a cheap toy—, situative alliances—against the current powers-that-be for now and let’s see how it goes—, ideologies and values—for everything good, against everything bad won’t quite do—, how the leaders and membership espouse these ideologies and values, the functioning of the organization and its network of supporters—not just on paper—, and long-term goals—winning the next election doesn’t qualify—, and so on, and so forth.

Thirdly, a maturing democratic society cannot function without a rotation among its elites. Horizontally, this means parties replace each other in competitive political environment, first coming to power and then in the opposition, and vertically, it means party organizations renewing themselves internally by bringing in new faces and promoting their younger members. This approach, alas, doesn’t work in Ukraine. The chessboard is filled with the same oligarchic political projects who replace each other and undergo rebranding from time to time. No horizontal rotation or internal renewal goes on at all, in effect. In short, social lifts, the one possible mechanism that can ensure healthy growth and evolution, don’t work.

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Indeed, sometimes certain phenomena can be observed in politics that give the impression, mistakenly, that they are working as social lifts. Tymoshenko brings a renewed young team to the Verkhovna Rada because the old one has abandoned her, Liashko surrounds himself with pretty girls with whom he gets photographed a lot, Narodniy Front adds a slew of Maidaners and vets to its party list, and Samopomich collects all the most active people from across the country who appear to espouse its ideals. But all these moves are little more than responses to specific challenges. They have little in common with social lifts and are more like filling gaps in the ranks and an employment opportunity.

Social lifts are a system of mechanisms that help people from the bottom advance up the social ladder to the top of the pyramid based on their own abilities, skills and achievements. It could be within a party or within a government bureaucracy, but this system has to be accessible to all. Its operating principle is personal growth and competition without financial factors involved. Only in this way can a country’s political elite ensure that really talented and professional individuals will join them, and not someone’s protégé or relative, or the “nice and necessary.”

Despite prominent declarations and endless chatter, and even the occasional attempt, no social lifts have been launched since Ukraine became independent, whether in the bureaucracy or in politics. There weren’t any then and there aren’t any now, either, especially among the parties. Parties were and remain special interests clubs or someone’s private property, which, unfortunately, appears to be their main qualification for existing—without any ideology or normal functioning. They simply are incapable of being otherwise, because that would be unnatural and irrational for them. Yet this is the heart of the problem. Generating slogans, inventing challenges and conning voters with obvious populism is a lot simpler than competing on the basis of platforms and ideas. It’s much cheaper to buy a spin-doctor than to grow talented successors to replace you and carry on the work.

But that bring up the more important question: before you start growing anything, what work actually needs to be carried on and what bright goal needs achieving? Holding on to power? We can do that ourselves. Sharing out budget flows? What do you need young, pro-active, goal-oriented, idealistic people for? They serve no purpose!

Why should the nominal head of a party, whose name is often written into the very name of the organization, need to keep a potentially dangerous future leader near them who could eventually give them a run for their money? This is threatening and harmful. Excess activeness is annoying, initiative is always suspect: they could make the boss look like an idiot by comparison. In the end, the leader wants to be the only one. After all, the party is the result of the leader’s work and that individual wants to distribute and spend any benefits earned, on their own. This goes for the partners, too, as there’s no business without partners. The easiest thing is to just hire the necessary professionals who will carry out the assignments necessary for money, the ideal solution. And if anything goes wrong, some Kurchenko—Yanukovych’s bagman—can always be found on whom all the ill-gotten gains can be blamed. Any further questions?

To this day, party-building is topsy-turvy in Ukraine. For starters, most parties have little in the way of democracy internally. Very few people break through from the rank-and-file to the upper echelons by moving up clearly-defined rungs on a ladder. Everything happens quite differently. The top leadership is only nominally elected, from the narrow circle of the owners or sponsors of the party. They decide who will be able to climb the career ladder, who will be on party lists in an election and in what order, and confirm the candidates in FPTP districts. Since these people look at their political party exclusively as a commercial project, when they come to office, they expect to get back return on investment with profits, and that reflects their selection of candidates. Access to the party lift is granted to those who can carry out the necessary work. Not politicians by vocation, who have a clear ideological position and enjoy the respect and support of their colleagues in the party and of voters, but those who are loyal and useful to the business corporation, which generally means the same businessmen and hirelings as those who employ them.

Theoretically, such a model could be considered a social lift, but with one caveat: the service industry. In effect, this means hiring mercenaries who will carry out specific tasks for the moneybags who sponsors the political grouping and makes it possible to get in the game. This is why the phenomenon called “tushky”—not to be confused with the thugs called “titushky”—is so widespread in Ukraine: the shifting back and forth of MPs between parties, depending on where they are offered a better deal, which is why the opposition parties are very nominally “opposition.” And so we don’t see the rotation of elites about which everyone has been talking for a long time: with these practices, no social lift is needed, apparently. When there is natural selection, the battle for ideology and competition of ideas are replaced by a competition among interests and wallets, and no one is responsible for anything: Politicians aren’t accountable to their allies, nor parties before their electorate. So why make any extra hassles for themselves? Treat politics as strictly commercial.

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But when parties are not ephemeral, vague substances, a completely different picture emerges: a regulated mechanism with a clear ideology that espouses specific values. On one hand, they are themselves interested in continuing to grow and renew themselves with new, healthy members and this is why they establish the necessary conditions for this. On the other, the young citizen who has decided to enter politics will choose a party precisely on the basis of ideology and values. And that means they will be motivated by those things that serve the party’s ideology. Not just for the sake of a career, in the old Komsomol or Party of the Regions, but really believing that in the company of these specific people, the young member will be able to do something meaningful, however sentimental that might sound, change the country, and achieve certain ideals. There is really no other way, other than to join a party as a young person and climb up all the rungs in its organizational ladder, demonstrating capacities and talents at every stage, and to reach a leading position in the party. Neither money nor patrons will do the trick. Even when they do, the person will not last long, because no one needs fools and idiots. Moreover, the party itself will monitor carefully to make sure everything remains above-board and high-quality. After all, a sterile reputation will be in direct proportion to the party’s popularity and influence.

In countries where political systems are highly evolved, the raising of an elite is a well-established, very thorough process. Selection starts at the college level. If the person exhibits certain leadership qualities and has shown that they are able to govern at that level, they have every chance of launching a successful political career. Of course, belonging to a political dynasty often does play an important role, but more as a kind of bonus that mostly underscores the potential emergence of the necessary know-how, skills and habits. A party run like a business has little to pass on to heirs, while genes are genes. The Bush family in the US is a good example of this. In Ukraine, even dynasties are a problem. In contrast to Americans, there are no political success stories involving the children of major politicians in Ukraine. Even the case of the younger Azarov or Poroshenko, who got there by accident. Such success stories are more like fairytales about how to get into the system on your dad’s back.

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The classic model based on healthy competition and ongoing professional development, which nurtures and rejuvenates the country’s elites in civilized countries, does not work in Ukraine. Nor could it. The function of a typical Ukrainian party is completely different. It cannot on principle be social lift. Not only does Ukraine lack a normal party system with a marketplace of ideas and projects, but there is barely such a notion as the youth wing of a party. These are where growth and selection should be taking place. Sometimes something that looks like that is set up for the sake of image, to mobilize cheap labor and so on. But when the ideology of the mother party is incomprehensible, the public that gets involved with it has no interest in idealistic goals. At the most, they hope to make money on specific campaigns. There’s no notion of healthy competition or professional development for the sake of moving up the career ladder. First of all, there’s no ladder. Secondly, those at the top only need cannon fodder and the chances that they will notice someone and let them through are nearly zero.

To be fair, there is actually some kind of pseudo-lifts. If you were lucky enough to be born Serhiy Berezenko, nephew of Anatoliy Matvienko, then the chance that you will become an advisor to the president and a member of the praesidium of the central council of the BPP party, Solidarnist, are many times higher. Once you have money and a willingness to investment in party-building, the lift will also be there for you. Those who have not wasted their lives but have achieved professional success as a star of the stage or, at least, famous on the internet, also have a chance. Celebrities are always useful to have around in respected political company for image purposes and are readily called to cooperate. Of course, this is all for the chosen few.

However sad it may seem, but the truth is that without radical changes in the political elite, meaning reforming the current political model, any expectations that the country’s politics will recover are doomed to disappointment. Any social lifts are live-born and will survive a long time yet. But until politics at least ceases to be business and oligarchs, as a class, are removed from government, these quasi social lifts will continue to operate for a long time yet.

After the Revolution of Dignity, quite a few political projects appeared whose goal was to bring new rules and principles to the party-building game. Unfortunately, the few such cases remain unsatisfactory, incomplete attempts.


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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