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28 November, 2019  ▪  Andriy Holub

Ze voters

The government can hardly count on support from the streets despite its high ratings

Like any actor, Volodymyr Zelenskiy seeks fame and admiration from the audience. Over the years of his performances, he has managed to gain both. Volodymyr Zelenskiy as politician is certainly not a leader of the street. In his new career, Zelenskiy and his team have not managed to gather a single rally. When the conflict between the newly elected President and the previous Verkhovna Rada erupted over the date of his inauguration, calls emerged on social media on behalf of Zelenskiy to come to a rally in front of the Parliament. Zelenskiy’s team brushed off the initiative and branded the upcoming rally as “unplanned” even though Ukraine’s Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly. 

Zelenskiy’s reluctance to be associated with street politics is understandable. He is a “president of comfort” and of the people who appreciate Friday and Saturday nights in a warm house with hot tea or something stronger and a favorite comedy show playing in the background. Street actions are not comfortable. Firstly, they keep reminding politicians about unresolved problems which spoils their sense of positivity. Secondly, any rally is essentially a call on the people to sacrifice their comfort. The sacrifice is often for abstract goals which will not result in immediate personal benefits. Thirdly, quite a few people see any street activity negatively after the bloodshed in the Maidan and war even if they don’t take efforts to understand the nature and demands of these processes. After all, a rally always points to a conflict between different groups of people. Political or not, conflicts have nothing to do with a comfortable everyday life. 

Zelenskiy managed to avoid taking a clear side in conflicts in his time in the media business. “I can understand the position of the people when they took it to the Maidan. Other people were beaten then. I was ready to be with people for that position. If the people are insulted and beaten further, I will go to the Maidan too. And I went there, of course. Not on December 1 when the Berkut beat up the students, I popped by the following day. Overall, violence is not natural in our mentality. When I watch coups and looting in Arab countries, I see it with horror. That’s when I felt happy to have been born in Ukraine. But our country has not been lucky with politics and the establishment,” Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the press before 2014 New Year. The idea about “bad politicians and good people” was a long-time unchanging cliche in Zelenskiy’s rhetorics leader, whenever he had to comment on any landmark developments. 

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He is trying to use this cliche in his political activity, too. He essentially ignored events marking the fifth anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity in February 2019, just a month before the presidential election. Once elected, he has not spoken much about punishing those culpable in the Maidan violence against protesters. Still, Zelenskiy is hardly a sympathizer of the other side of that clash. All his efforts focus on distancing himself from the topic. 

This public image is the key safeguard against him taking over his predecessor’s practices and arranging “anti-Maidans” if the current rallies against the “Steinmeier formula” continue and escalate. Any rallies or tent towns for Zelenskiy or against him will show that the President has failed to build an utopian country of comfort without conflicts. Bussing people employed in the public sphere to Kyiv – he enjoys high support among them – will hardly have a positive impact on the President’s image. Zelenskiy’s supporters want things calm and quiet. Stirring this would probably be slow political suicide for Zelenskiy. 

How capable is part of the President’s supporters to take initiative and rally in support of their leader and his ideas on the resolution in the Donbas is a different issue. Iryna Bekeshkina, sociologist and head of the Democratic Initiatives foundation, believes that much will depend on the nature of the ongoing protests. “If it’s just a peaceful protest like now, Zelenskiy’s supporters could take it to the streets, but they are unlikely to do so. What is there to rally for? He remains President, nothing threatens him,” she says. 

Bekeshkina assumes, however, that other political forces could arrange rallies in support of arrangements on the Donbas. “If we speak about the Steinmeier formula, there could be some rallies, but they will not be organized by his (Zelenskiy’s – Ed.) supporters. For example, the Opposition Platform – For Life could take people to the streets in the East arguing that they want peace and all that. The closer you are to the frontline, the more people are willing to have peace under any terms,” she comments. 

The voters of Zelenskiy and the Servant of the People are probably the most passive cohort in Ukraine. The electorate of Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s Holos(Voice) and Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity has the most people with a proactive civic position. Yuriy Boyko’s Opposition Platform – For Life and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna(Fatherland) have the fewest proactive supporters. The Servant of the People is somewhere in the middle between these two extremes, the nationwide exit poll from the latest parliamentary election shows. “The indicators for the Servant of the People generally match those across the country. Their electorate generally reflects the population across the country in various issues,” Bekeshkina says. 

On October 8, Oleksandr Reznik, Acting Director of the Department for Socio-Political Processes at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, presented measurements of civic activity at the public discussion on civil society and citizens (Civil Society and Citizens: Old Problems, New Challenges and Prospects – Ed.). According to the poll conducted in August 2019, 40% responded that they had participated in some civic political actions in the past 12 months. That figure can create a misleading impression that almost half of Ukraine’s citizens are willing to seriously stand up for their convictions. This is not exactly so. Sociologists listed things, such as discussions with family and friends or discussions about civic life or politics on social media as civic practices. In fact, these two activities top the list with 22.8% and 12.5% respectively. 

“It is no surprise that discussions are the most popular practices. Participation in them does not require any organizational or mental efforts. Two election campaigns had a huge impact, too, when the amount of discussions seriously increased compared to the previous years. We saw a similar trend in 2006 as 22% of the citizens said that they actively participated in discussions. Parliamentary election took place then,” Reznik commented on the findings. 

The more efforts and time organization and participation in civic practices takes, the fewer people are involved. For example, the number of people willing to get involved in economic practices of protest is two- or threefold lower. 11.2% will boycott certain goods for specific reasons; 7.9% will donate money to volunteers, the army or charity organizations, and 7.8% will donate to charity campaigns. 

Fewer people still join civic organizations, movements and parties (3.9%); housing cooperatives (3.8%); collection of signatures for causes (3.7%); contacts with civic activists and representatives of political forces (3.3%); complaints to authorities (3.2%); civic hearings and consultations with the authorities (2.7%); volunteer work, treatment of the wounded soldiers, and help to IDPs (2.6%). 

The smallest cohort of activists are the citizens who join protest rallies. According to the Institute of Sociology, they are just 2% across Ukraine. If the Servant of the People’s audience is similar to the population across Ukraine, the number of those willing to take it to the streets reflects the share of the proactive accordingly. 2% seems like very little. Out of the millions of supporters of the party in power, it could expect to have several dozen people rallying for it in the streets. But elementary mathematics does not work here. 

“The views of problems amongst those involved in civic practices differ from the views of passive citizens in a number of issues. Somewhat more people from among the activists voted for Petro Poroshenko in the latest elections. This is especially noticeable among those involved in the latest protests. 51% voted for Zelenskiy and 33% for Poroshenko,” Reznik said. Those protesting in the streets have a specific attitude towards Ukraine’s foreign policy choices and paths towards peace in the Donbas. This factor becomes key as these are the reasons for the ongoing protests. 

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People involved in the protests “assess the political situation as tense more often, are more pro-Western when it comes to the EU and NATO, and are more negative about integrating neutral and non-aligned status into the Constitution. In addition to that, civic activists are more supportive of ways to return the Donbas that avoid threats to sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine than the passive population. Therefore, the current government should pay attention to the views of civic activists,” Reznik adds. 

The key problem of those in power for now is not the solutions (with obscure goals), but communication and explanation of their actions. High support in elections has its negative consequences. One is overconfidence. Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan has recently posted screenshots from a group on social media where people were invited to join the anti-government rally for money. He thus essentially labeled all as paid protesters. This position speaks of arrogance, which raises a lot of concern. The President’s team should remember that civic activism has not risen in Ukraine in the past five years. This is one of the wasted opportunities of that period. It looks like the core cohort of the Revolution of Dignity is still at 2%. These people are far fewer than the supporters of the party in power, but they are certainly more determined. Citizen Bohdan should keep that in mind. 

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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