Scenic authoritarianism

24 October 2019, 00:50

It is not always easy to see a real prototype behind fictional characters. Ukrainian politics proves otherwise. Analysts and journalists have spent the past few months trying to figure out how similar President Volodymyr Zelenskiywill be to his former alter ego, Vasyl Holborodko, the protagonist in his Servant of the People show. 

The image of Holoborodko is not very original. The story of a “common-folk teacher” going on a fight against oligarchs for people’s happiness is an archetypical plot often used for official biographies of authoritarian leaders. The context allows to construct a legend about “outstanding personal qualities” of the leader and to present him as a champion of what “common people” want. Authoritarians use this will of the people to justify their tyranny as demolishing a “corrupt system” while playing by its rules is impossible. The Verkhovna Rada can be dissolved under a questionable procedure, if need be, or shot down with a machine gun as Holoborodko did in the movie. In his public work, Zelenskiy replicates Aliaksandr Lukachenka rather than Holborodko: he acted tough on camera against local officials in Boryspil and customs officers in Uzhhorod. He made a bet for Dnipro mayor Borys Filatov to resign if he fails to finish the construction of the Central Bridge on time. President Zelenskiy happily accepted the proposal of his Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan to be first to drive across that bridge in a KamAZ truck – exactly what Vladimir Putin did when he opened the Kerch Bridge. It is blatantly obvious that Zelenskiy and his party came to power through populism, and they are not going to quit populism anytime soon. Will their populism be a prologue to authoritarianism? 

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No authoritarian order or dictatorship rises from the will of an individual political leader or a team, but rather from a combination of circumstances and context. First, it needs tools to excessively concentrate power – in the hands of the president in Ukraine’s case. Ukrainian judiciary is a weak spot as it has proven ready to accommodate to political changes. But no authoritarianism was established thanks to courts alone so far. More than a loyal court, it needs strong political hierarchy in power. Viktor Yanukovych had the Party of Regions, a disciplined force seasoned by business and political battles and cemented in a system of patron-clientele loyalties. Zelenskiy has no such instrument. The Servant of the People is the largest entity in the new Verkhovna Rada, but its capacity to act in a consolidated manner is questionable. Just like Zelenskiy’s team, the Servant of the People has members with diverging views or without any views, representing different camps or getting in power by accident thanks to the rushed recruitment of candidates for the election. The President’s party and team will, of course, streamline their structure with time. But that will not necessarily save them from internal divisions. So far, the Servant of the People looks too loose to become an iron fist of the President in the Verkhovna Rada. 

The only way to authoritarianism without solid support base in parliament is through force. That is what happened in Russia where siloviki, the law enforcers, and officials with background in security agencies constitute the backbone of the regime. It is far more difficult to usurp power by force in Ukraine. The case of Yanukovych proved this.

Firstly, the protest potential of Ukrainian society is far higher compared to that in Russia or Belarus. At the very least, nobody can usurp power in Ukraine quietly without attracting the attention of the international community. The international community is perfectly willing to cooperate with Putin, as proven by the latest return of Russia to PACE. But it applies harsher standards to Ukraine, even if Ukraine’s geopolitical and nuclear status is different from that of Russia. The EU could have signed the Association Agreement with Viktor Yanukovych. But his use of violence against his people immediately turned him into a pariah in the eyes of the West. This means that the West can still tolerate a semi-democratic president like Orban or Yanukovych at the dawn of his presidency. But open usurpation of power is a red line. Coupled with the potential of civic protest, this creates the first obstacle on the way to authoritarianism.

Secondly, Ukrainian elite lacks consensus. The notorious “oligarchate” exists as a notion while the real political and economic interests of oligarchs are quite contradictory. While Putinism survives on corporate discipline of siloviki, the Ukrainian elite will hardly ever put all its eggs in one basket. Nor will it do so to give the basket to an adventurer dreaming of replicating Yanukovych’s “success”. 

Thirdly, for authoritarianism to happen, society must want it. 60% of Ukrainians agree to a greater or a lesser extent that Ukraine needs “a strong leader” rather than “talk about democracy”, according to a 2018 survey by the Democratic Initiatives foundation. But this must be interpreted with caution, as other surveys show something different. For example, 21% Ukrainians agree that Ukraine cannot do without a Stalin-type leader who will “come and put things in order”. 61% believe otherwise, a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in 2019 finds. Only 14% support change to the presidential republic, and 25% support the expansion of the president’s powers, a 2019 survey by the Democratic Initiatives shows. 

It looks like rhetoric in favour of a strong leader largely reflects frustration with ineffective governance rather than the actual demolition of democracy in Ukraine. While Zelenskiy got unprecedented support in the second round, this hardly means that Ukrainians see a messiah in him and are willing to hand over their freedom and destiny to him. His actual result is the 30% gained in the first round. The rest is the vote of protest. It is possible to get to power with protest vote, but it is hardly possible to stay in power with it. Even the 30% were accumulated thanks to the fact that Zelenskiy avoided to say anything specific throughout his campaign so that all categories of voters liked him. 

He will no longer be able to act like this as President, therefore his support will inevitably fade – just like it did for any of Ukraine’s presidents. So, this base of support will grow weaker. Mass media are an important tool of influence on public opinion. The phenomenon of Zelenskiy is the best proof as he literally came to office from TV screens. But he will hardly be able to rely on TV to rescue him. Trust for Ukrainian TV channels is not as high as is often believed, normally measuring at half of any channel’s popularity rate. While nearly 60% of Ukrainians watch 1+1, just 35% trust it. For Ukrayina, the ratio is 44% versus 22%, or 48% versus 22% for Inter, a 2019 survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology finds. So to claim that Zelenskiy became president thanks to the authority of 1+1 would be to unnecessarily simplify things. Furthermore, Ukraine’s top TV channels are owned by the oligarchs whose interests are not identical. Therefore, they are unlikely to act for a cumulative effect. In Ukraine’s modern history, media coalitions have mostly emerged to kill the popularity of the incumbents, not to boost it. The same is true for the rest of mass media which will hardly persuade Ukrainians to accept authoritarianism, even if they join forces. Nor will they persuade people to accept authoritarianism from Zelenskyi’s team. 

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As a result, Ukraine is unlikely to drift towards authoritarianism anytime soon. The new government has as few chances to accomplish it as any previous government had. What can happen is Zelenskiy playing Holoborodko, Lukachenka or Putin on camera which will hardly reinforce his power, but it will entertain the audience – something he does professionally. Public scolding of officials and trolling of political opponents is what the protest electorate wants given its unsatisfied frustration with the previous government. We may still see the President at a gym, on an airplane, riding a horse or diving in the sea – the show cannot be mundane.  

When it comes to arbitrary use and abuse of power, Ukraine’s flawed democracy leaves vast space for that. While authoritarian inclinations of the new leadership are still a vague concern, its readiness to use institutional weak spots for its benefit is already a fact of life. It is now important for civil society to not find itself in a position of generals preparing for wars of the past. It should prepare to quickly bloc relatively small but massive manipulations implemented through parliament, courts and other creative channels rather than for a frontal attack from yet another usurper. This is not an invitation to relax. Pooled together, small manipulations could damage Ukraine as much as an open demarche from those in power. 


Translated by Anna Korbut 

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