Crisis of Representation

1 July 2018, 12:48

Any election is not only a bloodless method for rotating the ruling elites, but also a "competition" between ideas for the present and future. Until recently, the main content of Ukrainian politics was determined by discussions about the historical status of our country. Who are we: a sovereign European country or a quasi-state in Moscow's orbit? The internal agenda was structured in the same way. The issues of language, history and education were all a continuation of the central political theme. The Ukrainian political scene was clearly divided into two opposing camps and attempts to be positioned as a "third force" or claim "neutrality" were not in high electoral demand. Political strategists played their part in encouraging this split, but it seemed quite natural from a historical point of view: having just gained independent status, society sought answers to the fundamental questions of its existence. After 2014, this discussion, if it did not stop completely, at least died down a great deal. Partly due to the change in public sentiment and reduction of the electoral landscape as a result of the occupation, partly due to the political defeat of the pro-Russian camp. The consensus on independence, the protection of sovereignty and a Euro-Atlantic foreign policy is now adhered to by the Ukrainian political mainstream.


However, even within this consensus, there is plenty of room for the debates that take place between social democrats and conservatives in European democracies. The former are traditionally supported by hired workers, who are impressed by the emphasis on social justice, state control of the economy and support for the poor. The main support of the latter is the middle class, interested in liberalising the economy, privatisation and so on. But there has never been a similar division in Ukrainian politics. As soon as the political elite ended its division into pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian camps, the differences between the leading parties were reduced to their personalities, rhetorical style and level of populism. This lack of a system is clearly illustrated by the practice of the current government, which is torn between market reforms and "improving the standard of living right now". In fact, this is not a problem of that particular body, as consistency cannot be expected from opposition forces either. By all appearances, we will again have to choose between faces rather than economic concepts at the 2019 elections. But the reasons for this lie deeper than the subjective weaknesses of Ukrainian politics.


It is clear that the economic interests of different social strata have just as much political potential as ideological or linguistic discrepancies. Let's look at the numbers. At the end of 2017, Minister of Social Policy Andriy Reva estimated that 39.4% live below the poverty line, even after the minimum wage increase and "modernisation" of pensions. Moreover, poverty in Ukraine is inherent to not only vulnerable groups of the population, but also workers who are forced to save on leisure, clothes, medicines and food. This affects their views in a certain way. According to the Rating group, poorer, older and less educated people tend towards paternalistic values, supporting an increase in the proportion of state-owned business, "establishing order" at the expense of democracy, etc. Alongside them, there is a middle class (around 30% of the population see themselves as part of it) consisting of entrepreneurs, professionals and individuals involved in the so-called creative economy. These people have enough to live on, but there is a catastrophic lack of confidence in the future: a significant part of the "middle" risks dropping out of this category following any economic instability. Unlike the poor, they are geared towards a competitive economy. For example, the list of demands put forward by the Union of Ukrainian Entrepreneurs includes  ​​privatisation, the creation of a land market, the simplification of doing business, etc. Both the poor and the middle class are separated from the thin wealthy layer in society by a chasm of social inequality that is becoming dangerously wide.

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It would seem that the restructuring of Ukrainian politics into hypothetical "poor" and "middle-class" parties is inevitable – this division could be seen even during the dramatic events of 2014. Social-economic issues were not on the agenda of the Maidan, but the social portrait of the revolutionaries was easily recognisable as the Ukrainian middle class. According to a joint study by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), about 77% of participants in the revolutionary events had completed higher education or were still in it (students). Broken down by profession, about 70% were managers or specialists (including those studying to be specialists in the future) and entrepreneurs, and in terms of age, 87% of participants were 15-54 years old. In this sense, the Maidan was not only a national, but also a specifically bourgeois revolution – at least its composition, if not its slogans. Its opposite number was the AntiMaidan, especially in spring 2014, when the Party of Regions could no longer mobilise people in an orderly manner and replaced sincere supporters with an unruly mob. In the absence of sociological research, we have to rely on eyewitness accounts that are entirely unambiguous: the support base of the AntiMaidan was made up of representatives of lower strata of the population, sprinkled with overt lowlifes, that were expressing not only their political views, but also social protest.


Since then, the political agenda has changed, but neither the dissatisfied middle class, nor the dissatisfied poor have gone anywhere. However, no changes occurred in politics. As always, the populists promise all things to all people: factories for the workers, capital for the capitalists and a determined struggle with the oligarchy for everyone. There is no clear correlation between social characteristics and preferences for any of the leading Ukrainian parties. According to the KIIS data, Motherland, Petro Poroshenko Bloc, Radical Party, For Life, Opposition Bloc and Self-Help do not attract an electorate that can be clearly distinguished by a certain set of social characteristics. Usually the variations are within the margin of error or are rather insignificant. The traditional regional correlation remains the most noticeable: the East and South of the country mainly vote for pro-Russian forces (in this case, the Opposition Bloc and For Life), while the West and Centre favour the national-democratic camp. It is easy to blame the populists who are unwilling to act within certain economic concepts, but no corresponding demand from society can be seen either. Indeed, according to the Rating group, the ideological principles of a party are an important criterion for only 11% of voters. According to the Razumkov Centre, almost 56% of Ukrainians have never read a party manifesto at all (almost 48% among those with higher education and 52-54% among the wealthy).

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At first glance, this seems incomprehensible. Why, for example, does the middle class not want to have a middle-class party that will protect its interests locally, in parliament and possibly in government? Why do not the poor not desire this? The answer lies in part in the social structure itself, which is not as robust as it first seems. It is determined not only by wealth, educational and professional divisions, but also the split between those whose economic activity is legal and those in the "shadow economy" (according to the IMF, up to 45% of the Ukrainian economy could be off the books). This division splits the middle class the hardest. Hired workers do not get any advantages from their illegal status, but the underground economy allows businesses to maximise profits by not paying taxes or complying with labour laws. The owners of clandestine coalmines in the Donbas, amber mines in Volhynia, poachers' sawmills in the Carpathians and illegal developers in Kyiv are just some of the "business" representatives who are not interested in creating effective state institutions, a market economy or other features of civilisation. Lower social strata are not monolithic either and are also internally divided. There are disputes between workers and pensioners, between those who have a permanent job and the precariat. In fact, the only aligned front is the oligarchy and businesses affiliated with it, which not only articulate their common interests, but also effectively implement them by interfering with the functioning of state institutions.


Alongside difficulties in articulating their common interests, Ukrainians do not even use the institutional capabilities that they have now. For example, according to the Razumkov Centre, 92% of citizens have never contacted an MP, only 15% have been to their constituency surgeries and 90% have never participated in public hearings nor been members of citizens' councils. What's more, asked to name institutions that should represent the interests of citizens, only 21% of Ukrainians mentioned political parties, 19% public organisations, 13% trade unions and 10% individual politicians. Coupled with the traditionally low credibility of politicians, parties and parliament, this testifies to the serious shortcomings of Ukrainian political culture. They can be attributed to history, as we do not have a social tradition of democracy, and civil society is, if not embryonic, at a very early stage of development. Therefore, the use of representative mechanisms in itself is a new and difficult task for Ukrainians. Bringing the interests of social strata whose boundaries are being eroded and internal differentiation is constantly growing to a common political denominator is an even tougher ask. Moreover, in the context of the general devaluation of politics, this task becomes extremely non-trivial. So in the near future, Ukrainian politics will remain a competition between populists that promise the world to everyone, making government policy veer between liberal reforms and quasi-socialism.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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