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2 June, 2011  ▪  Andrii Duda

Vox Populi

Ukraine’s middle class is waiting for a political force to support

A middle class is a crucial element in keeping the state stable and democratic in the social, economic and political spheres. From the economic perspective, a strong middle class leads to stable and predictable taxes and sustainable consumption with high purchasing power. It terms of its social role, the middle class assists the government meet its social liabilities as it can normally pay for medical, educational and other services without any subsidies or privileges. Potentially, the middle class can turn into a powerful platform for the government under certain circumstances. In the past, when the establishment of the Ukrainian state remained a dream, a lot of attention was paid to the search of the middle class as a social foundation for the country when it would emerge.

Yet, it would be erroneous to think of the middle class as only a good instrument in the government’s hands, especially in Ukraine. Over the past decade, Ukrainians have witnessed the self-identification of the middle class and the emergence of an understanding of what its political interests are. The Orange Revolution showed the power of the middle class which involved people who brought sandwiches to the protesters and wealthy well-dressed Kyivites who mobilised protests in the first days after fraudulent elections in the second round of the 2004 elections.  

The proletariat might have used stones as their weapons, but the middle class has the internet. To no one’s surprise, the Orange Revolution was labeled the world’s first  “internet revolution.” The Arab uprisings were referred to as a “Facebook revolution.” The world wide web has turned into a unique communication platform allowing both sides to discuss political projects, and mobilise full-scale organisational campaigns.

The golden means

Obviously, the definition and classification of the middle class is one of the most debated questions among sociologists, political analysts and business managers. Clearly, the key feature identifying this social class comes from its literal interpretation: the social group stands between the lowest poor members of society and the financial and administrative elites. There are several conventional criterias defining the middle class, including level of welfare, skills and education, social status, and personal self-identification.

The biggest challenge is to establish a material and financial base line for the middle class. Such an indicator varies significantly by country. There is though a common belief that owning real estate and a car, and earning a sustainable income sufficient to pay for foodstuffs, home appliances, vacations and entertainment, qualifies you from a financial criterion. Therefore, owners of small businesses, well-paid managers and qualified private and public employees could all be referred to as middle class under such indicators. 

Another criterion is the necessary level of education and skills.

Obviously, all of these criteria must be taken into account together, as higher education alone, for example, cannot be a measure of belonging to the middle class. Moreover, 2.5 times fewer people who hold a university degree tend to switch to the poor strata of society compared to those with no higher education, while their prospect of earning an average income increases by 1.5 times.

A person’s social status matters, as well. Company managers or government officials cannot qualify as belonging to the poorest section of society even if their income is fairly modest. Of course, Ukraine has its own unique style of placing people in different social categories. Compared to most developed countries where doctors, teachers and local authority civil servants  are automatically considered to be members of the middle class  regardless of their education, status or welfare, Ukrainian doctors and teachers risk ending up below this social group with monthly salaries of $100-150, despite their education levels.

Sociological surveys show that the highest percentage of people who consider themselves to be members of the middle class in Ukraine are drawn from personal self-identification. Over the past decade, nearly 45-50% of those polled associate themelves to Ukraine’s middle class. However, according to  a 2001 speech by President Leonid Kuchma, the middle class accounted for a mere 12% of the population based on the combination of the above mentioned criteria, while the Razumkov Centre estimated the share to be 17% before the 2008-2009 global financial crisis after which it declined to 12%.

Unfortunately, a formal approach to determining the size of Ukraine’s middle class has a significant drawback in that it includes a  social class of people who are in fact very distant from it. Namely,  the “support team” of oligarch tycoons who have a fairly high income but at the same time are too dependent on the mercy of their masters and cannot therefore stand for changes to the tycoon-controlled system.

Political pragmatism

For political purposes, the middle class is a psychological phenomenon whose features include social status, financial position and expectations on the ability to enter the social group.

The current Ukrainian middle class emerged over the last 20 years from people who run their businesses at their own risk or perform professional activities. Their number has grown qualitatively only recently. The search for self-identification of this group is based on  ideological values. The first value is upgrading the level of management to greater  professionalism, which means utilising efficient models of governance that ensures competence and removes corruption and subjectivism in the decision making process. Hence there is a commonly held belief in the middle class  that a new generation of managers aged 30 to 40 should come to power. A second value is the removal of the tax burden on businesses and simplifying procedures to launch and run a business. The third value is to no longer promote ideological conflicts by establishing political and ideological projects for elections which would be loyal to the authorities. This value is followed by a European-oriented programme and opposition to any forms of abuses by those who are in power.

Politicians who intend to aspire to represent the middle class must come to terms with yet another  important aspect: the middle class think critically and are ready to analyse politicians promises and their actions from a pragmatic standpoint. Therefore,  those who harbor political ambitions should understand that they will face an intelligent electorate demanding professionalism, innovative ideas and effective programmes. Cooperating with Ukraine’s middle class leaves no posssibility for mistakes, as proven by the case of Viktor Yushchenko, Arseniy Yatseniuk and Sergei Tigipko. The Middle class placed their hopes in them and eventually became disenchanted in them.

There is no question, Ukraine definitely has a middle class. Moreover, it has become a politically proactive force. This class of societyis ready to provide the required intellectual or financial support, as well as direct action, to politicians and their election campaigns if they believe they are sincere and timely. In return for its trust, the middle class sets extremely high standards for politicians programme’s which must be filled with realistic and implementable content.   

THE VOICE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS: The protests of small and medium entrepreneurs against the new Tax Code in November 2010 forced the government to drop the most infamous provisions of the new law.

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