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Volodymyr Zelenskyy represents the ‘non-Maidan’ section of Ukrainian society

An interview with Volodymyr Yermolenko, a philosopher and Editor-in-Chief at UkraineWorld. Interviewer: Kateryna Pryshchepa.

May 29, 2020 - Kateryna Pryshchepa Volodymyr Yermolenko - Interviews

Volodymyr Yermolenko Photo: Private

KATERYNA PRYSHCHEPA: Ukraine seems to have been going through yet another revolution over the past year, as a number of goals set by Maidan governments seem to be put under review. It is now over one year since Volodymyr Zelenskyy won the presidential election. What has been going on in Ukraine under his rule?

VOLODYMYR YERMOLENKO: We are moving towards a new multi-vector style of politics in Ukraine. The main difference is that whilst under Leonid Kuchma’s presidency the second vector (aimed at “balancing” the European one) was Russia, for Zelenskyy it is the people from the pre-Maidan ancien regime, the people who are related to Viktor Yanukovych’s rule. The reason for that situation is that Zelenskyy understands that he won the elections thanks to a large group of the Ukrainian society that, for numerous reasons, cannot or does not want to make a final choice between European integration or close ties with Russia. Those who prefer Europe are represented in parliament by Petro Poroshenko and his party and the new party Holos. At the same time, those favouring Russia are represented by Viktor Medvedchuk and his Opposition Platform for Life. Zelenskyy and his party occupy an undefined middle ground. These two clearer choices each have the support of 15 to 20 per cent of voters. The rest of the voters’ views are not clearly defined and commonly swing between both directions. Knowing this, Zelenskyy has been performing a constant balancing act which can often produce contradictory or conflicting decisions on his part. As a result, many controversial politicians have recently been able to revive their political careers. Persons suspected of corruption are nominated to managing positions in Tax Administration or at the Customs Office. At the same time, we are receiving news of Mikheil Saakashvili being offered some post in the government. It is hard to say if these are Zelenskyy’s own decisions or if he is being advised to do this. But it seems like the plan behind these actions is to encourage conflict between the groups in society who have clear political preferences. The president in this situation will have the chance to become an arbiter.

But what do you think were Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s motives for getting into politics in the first place? Do you think his intentions were to create the present political situation?

It is best to ask Zelenskyy about that. We can only speculate on this topic. Being the same age as him, it seems to me that his personal life experience have something to do with it. He was a youngster in the 1990s. This was a very chaotic period just after the collapse of the USSR when many people lost a lot. But it was also a period of great opportunities for many others. I believe that Zelenskyy’s success in KVN (a Soviet and later Russian TV comedy show in which teams of comedians compete against each other), as well as his subsequent good fortune in the entertainment industry with his company made him believe that nothing was too big for him. It is also possible that there were people who made him believe that. But I don’t think that Zelenskyy had a clear understanding of what politics is really like when he decided to run for office.

By the way you describe him Zelenskyy seems to have quite a few things in common with Petro Poroshenko. Despite being of different age they were both successful post-Soviet businessmen before taking political roles. Their family backgrounds in the middle-class nomenklatura also have similarities.

I guess you can say that. You can say that they are both self-made men of a generation which came to replace the elite who ruled Ukraine immediately after it gained independence. Ukraine’s early bourgeoisie and political elite was mainly a group of former Soviet functionaries who at some point decided to accept the realities of an independent Ukraine. They agreed to compromise with pro-independence circles about the statehood. But the price for that was former Communist Party and KGB members controlling national resources and former state enterprises. Ukraine’s first and second presidents, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, were representatives of that first generation of post-Soviet elite. Kravchuk was a former Communist Party boss and Kuchma was a former director of a big state enterprise. Under their rule Ukraine experienced the 1990s and the first years of the 2000s. Only then did a new wave of post-Soviet elite find themselves in the top positions.

The difference between Zelenskyy and Poroshenko however is that Poroshenko has been long engaged in Ukraine’s politics. He has held many important government positions over the years. Although he might have often used his jobs for the good of his own business he has also gained a lot of political experience and an understanding of what is feasible. Volodymyr Zelenskyy ran a campaign based on completely unrealistic slogans. He was part of this global wave of populist politics, which was essentially a sort of rebellion against politics as a profession. Zelenskyy basically promised that he would come from outside the political sphere and change everything for the better. This is the main difference between him and Poroshenko.

We will later come back to this wave of populism that you mentioned. But do you think there is still a connection between present day Ukraine’s elite and that of the Soviet era? For instance the father of Andriy Yermak (Zelnskyy’s chief of staff) was involved in foreign trade as a USSR official. Do you think there are still many careers built on Soviet social capital?

Undoubtedly these ties still exist despite the two Maidans in Ukraine. They have not changed the order of things that dramatically. We could see some new faces entering parliament, but they are not very influential. At the same time, we cannot say that these politicians or civil servants with Soviet ties have all been bad. For example, Yuriy Vitrenko, the son of Nataliya (controversial leader of far-left party in the 1990s and early 2000s), was instrumental in the successful reform of Ukraine’s state energy giant Naftogaz after Maidan.

What worries me the most is the continuing influence of these ties with the old nomenklatura in Ukraine’s judiciary, prosecution and police. Some countries are ruled by military juntas, Russia is ruled by the KGB and Ukraine, I believe, is in fact ruled by a corrupt conglomerate made up of the judiciary, prosecution and the police. The army in Ukraine has been very weak for a long time and we did not really have intelligence services, so the police and judiciary took advantage of this power void and took over the country. These institutions are successfully reproducing through family ties and thanks to universities such as Odesa Law Academy run by Serhiy Kivalov (former chief of the State Election Commission under President Kuchma and head of the High Council of Justice under President Yanukovych). Unfortunately, reforms aimed at increasing the independence of judiciary encouraged by European institutions have only lead to strengthening of this judiciary and prosecution mafia. These changes were designed in accordance with models supported by the Council of Europe and based on Montesquieu’s idea that a judiciary can only be just if it is independent. However, in Ukraine the independence of the judiciary has simply meant that this corrupt system continues without challenge. As a result we are now in a deep crisis and it is hard to say what we can do about it. When Ruslan Riaboshapka (Prosecutor General under Volodymyr Zelenskyy from August 2019 to March 2020) tried to tackle this problem in the prosecution sphere he was fired.

But prior to that Riaboshapka discredited himself when he pushed for the much publicised arrest of a group of former army volunteers in connection with the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet (Ruslan Riaboshapka, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov held a press conference proclaiming that the case was solved. The evidence provided by the police has been contested and the prosecution claims investigation should be extended– editor’s note).

Ruslan Riaboshapka discredited himself in a number of ways. He made moves to support Andriy Bohdan’s appointment as the president’s chief of staff in 2019, despite the fact that it was illegal according to the law on lustration. He definitely made a number of mistakes. But I still think that within Zelenskyy’s entourage he was ultimately among those on the good side.

Coming back to Ukraine’s judiciary and prosecution system. During Soviet times the judiciary was the weakest of all the state institutions. Prosecution was somewhat stronger, but in general these were not the most influential and powerful bodies of the state. The Communist Party and KGB ruled the country. How did they manage to change their status in an independent Ukraine?

This was the result of changes in the state system encouraged by the new market economy. With the introduction of the market, horizontal ties and interactions between individuals gained more importance and top-down management became more difficult in many spheres. Under this model it is the judiciary and prosecution who can influence business activities the most.

So the change of the economic model was the reason?

Yes. They (judiciary, prosecution and police) are in fact a key part of our current economic model. Some in judiciary facilitate illegal raid-style business attacks and others are playing for the targets of those raider attacks.

Our legal system was designed to be intricate and contradictory in order to enable this abuse of legal norms. During Soviet times the law did not exist in our country. We followed the will of the Communist Party instead. When the will of the Communist Party disappeared this void was simply filled by the wills of different individuals. In fact, people such as Andriy Portnov (deputy chief of staff under President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010-14) or Andriy Bohdan hold such important positions because they are among the small number of individuals who understand our legal system.

Coming back to Zelenskyy and his populist streak. Did you expect his mandate to be that strong? Zelenskyy seems to have outperformed all the other populists in the current international populist wave.

Ukrainian populism differs from that in the West. Populist in the West attempt to present a “leftist” problem using right wing political vocabulary. In many countries voters’ socio-economic positions are considerably worse compared to the situation of a few decades ago. Due to globalisation and the migration of industries many have lost proper work places and the workers’ rights are constantly under attack. Normally, left-wing parties have offered solutions to such problems. But starting from the 1980s they embraced neo-liberalism and began to cooperate with big business and subsequently there are no proper socialist parties to represent the workers anymore. So the field traditionally occupied by socialists or labour parties was taken over by marginal forces. Voters were offered simple solutions by the radical right. These solutions are usually based on nostalgia (note the slogan “Make America great again”) and propose limiting migration and international trade.

It cannot work this way in Ukraine simply because we do not have a lost golden age, unlike Italians, Poles, Americans and others. Our past was so bad that we cannot aspire to recreate it. This is the difference between us and Russia, by the way. In Russia they believe that the past was glorious and they are trying to recreate the Soviet era which does not make sense to Ukrainians. Even Ukraine’s post-Soviet elite understood this. So Zelenskyy came with the promise of a great future, not a great past. Ukrainians liked this message very much, although it was a very naive, even childish.

With his victory Zelenskyy has prevented the return of the old regime. Remember, six months prior to elections before Zelenskyy entered the race Yulia Tymoshenko was number one in the presidential polls and the second position was held by people related to the former Party of Regions and Viktor Medvedchuk. Tymoshenko’s support did not grow despite her campaign so it looked very much like a possibility of their ancien regime revival back then. Zelenskyy stopped their growth.

Speaking of this revanchism and nostalgia. Some commentators claim that a significant part of Ukrainian society shares this myth popular in Russia that the Soviet Brezhnev era was a golden age. Pro-Russian political factions in Ukraine attempt Soviet nostalgia cultivation to support their cause.

This Brezhnev era myth is not enough to successfully encourage widespread Soviet nostalgia. I am forty and Brezhnev died when I was two years old. So the people who can really remember that time are sixty or older now. And many of them are passing away. In Russia they understand that. That is why they base their new myth on the Second World War and all this pobedobesiye (victory hysteria – the cult based on idea of Russia’s victory in the Second World War) not the Brezhnev golden age. This Second World War myth can work only if you actually can reconstruct it now. Hence all those slogans “Mozhem povtorit” (We can repeat it). It’s like “Make America great again” in a way. Ukraine doesn’t have this great golden age myth that it can recreate. There are elements of the Cossack myth which Ukrainian army volunteers refer to partially. But in general Ukraine is a tabula rasa. This can be an advantage. We can build a country with a new beginning here. And Zelenskyy used this promise in his campaign.

But we still need someone to explain what is it that we are building now. Seemingly the image of Ukraine which was proposed six years ago did not attract enough people, if the voters decided to change course.

That is because Ukraine is a very pluralistic society. As I have already mentioned, the nationally minded section of society accounts for around 20 per cent of people. The question has always been if this minority can attract enough supporters from the undecided majority. This is what our foreign partners have even complained about. They say that Ukrainians finally have to decide who they are and what they want. But even if this hinders us as a society eventually, it is also an insurance policy against some very bad potential developments.

Coming back to last year’s presidential elections. Were you surprised by the electoral support that Zelenskyy managed to secure?

We were not just surprised. We were shocked. We wanted to believe that all of us lived in this new post-Maidan society. That Maidan changed politics, that the changes were irreversible and that we were the majority. It turned out not to be true. There were not only naive people among those who voted for Zelenskyy. We saw a third group emerging in our society, which Vakhtang Kebuladze calls non-Maidan. We used to have the Maidan, the anti-Maidan and now it turns out that the non-Maidan is the majority. Looking back we can say that this development was inevitable. Pro-Russia and pro-democracy groups in Ukrainian society only make up around 40 per cent of the population. The rest are simply not interested in these questions. Their priorities are somewhere else.

In the end I came to the conclusion that Zelenskyy’s campaign success was based not only on his slogans but also various memes. The difference here is that slogans aim at mobilisation, whilst memes help you laugh and relax. They gave the voter this satisfaction of laughing at everything. I believe Zelenskyy played on this need for independence shared by the vast majority of people. We are more and more interdependent in the world nowadays, but at the same time we want to feel more self-sufficient. And the meme culture plays on this wish to laugh and feel free from responsibility and interdependence. Zelenskyy played on these feelings very well. Take one of his campaign slogans “Ni obitsianok, ni probachen” (literally: no promises, no forgiving. This was originally a line from a song by Ukrainian pop singer Viktor Pavlik – editor’s note). Is there really any meaning to this? Seems more like a joke.

I had a feeling that the vote for Zelenskyy encouraged a sort of togetherness for many voters. His slogan “Zrobymo yikh razom” (let’s do them together) created this flash-mob attitude among many voters.

I agree. There was a feeling of a funny joke about this vote. And the problem is that the people who came to power as a result of Zelenskyy’s success are very irresponsible as well. I have met quite a few of the newly elected MPs and I must say that the most reform minded among them are as irresponsible as many of their voters. They have childish attitudes to politics and government. They think politics is simply memes and jokes. It is karma of a sort, that we have the least responsible government in place at a time of great challenge for Ukraine.

So I have a question regarding responsibility and choices. Does Ukraine really need to integrate with the West more, if only a small part of society seriously wants that?

Well, there is clear public support for the idea of moving towards the West at present. Public opinion polls demonstrate that over 50 per cent of voters support the idea of further integration with the West. And these numbers are growing steadily.

Does this mean that 20 per cent of voters are enthusiastic about integration with the West and the rest do not oppose it?

Well, it is to a large extent the result of the fact that the Russian vector has discredited itself. Pro-Russian forces in Ukraine are not very successful in proposing a positive pro-Russian agenda. They are “productive”, however, when it comes to destroying other narratives. During Petro Poroshenko’s presidency they were challenging his narrative and agenda, now they are engaged in undermining Zelenskyy’s power. They are a force purely focused on destruction, lacking ideas and any real alternative proposals for Ukraine. What could they offer, a return to Stalin’s cult?

But we still have a considerable portion of voters who would like to have someone like Aleksandr Lukashenka running Ukraine, according to polls.

This is true. The idea of a strong man, authoritarian leader is popular among some voters. This is the result of a general dissatisfaction with the everlasting turbulence and chaos of social and political life in Ukraine. However, if such a leader had appeared in Ukraine at some point, I am not sure he would be in power for long. This is just how Ukrainian society works. Ukrainians normally distrust their political leaders and do not look at them as an unchallengable authority. It will be interesting to see for how long Zelenskyy’s popularity will last. I think this pandemic will help him. If we do not have a significant loss of life in Ukraine, I guess he is going to build a narrative based on a successful fight against the virus.

But do you think Ukraine will be able to sustain this fight against the virus economically?

It is true that the economy is weak, although there were signs of renewed growth just before the quarantine was imposed. Of course, a lot depends on the future of cooperation with the IMF. If Igor Kolomoiskyy wins and Ukraine does not get support from the IMF the problems will only increase. We than should expect expenditure by the National Bank and great rates of inflation.

Speaking about contacts and cooperation with the West in general, you mentioned that institutions which supported reform in Ukraine just after Maidan were mistaken in the advice they gave. Do you think there are many people in Europe who understand how Ukraine really works?

It is not the question of European advisers. The problem is that we in Ukraine sometimes are not considerate enough when implementing European practices. Copy-paste methods can never work. Unfortunately, judiciary reform is not the only example of unsuccessful implementation. The higher education reform which aimed at bringing Ukraine into the European education space simply ended up facilitating imitation of European practices in university education and science. But this is a topic for another talk. Unfortunately, we still do not have a strong group of intellectuals who would be able to explain the specifics of Ukrainian society without rhetoric promoting our absolute uniqueness.

During Maidan Timothy Snyder proposed that Ukrainian civil society was asking for help from outside because it became clear that it was too weak to challenge and reform Ukraine’s corrupt state on its own. Do you accept this proposal as valid now?

Ultimately, the people who can reform the country are people from this country. So we return to discussions on our internal resources and social capital. Some people might have believed in the West’s ability to offer ‘magic help’. But those attitudes are changing now although we need the contacts with the West.

Talking about the need for better understanding between Ukraine and Europe, we do have a lot of work to do. This is primarily a task for Ukraine. We now have the Ukrainian Institute under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Book Institute, which hopefully will support book translation programmes. Ukraine needs to overcome this post-colonial syndrome which prioritises survival over communication and telling our story to the outside world. In the modern world you either tell a powerful story about yourself or you do not exist. I believe the book Ukraine in Histories and Stories published last year, which I have contributed to, is a step in the right direction. But there has to be a lot more of these publications.

Given the current situation in relation to the pandemic, as well as post-Maidan Ukraine’s disappointment with Europe, what can be done so that Ukraine’s contacts with Europe are not harmed in the near future?

Ukraine should step up and end its tendency to be a constant beggar. For instance, I believe it was a good decision to send doctors to Italy to support the fight against Covid-19. But it is possible still that Europe will remain concentrated on its own issues in the near future. It may mean that Ukraine’s ties with Europe will be weaker as well.

So you think Ukrainians will not like Europe as much in the near future?

Not necessarily. It might just be that the authorities may attempt to restore the old regime while simultaneously promoting pro-European rhetoric. We now face potential revisionism with regards to the legacy of Maidan. There have been a number of statements made by the State Bureau of Investigations, which echoes the rhetoric of Yanukovych’s lawyers. In fact, there is now an anti-Maidan coalition in Ukraine formed by pro-Russian forces and Igor Kolomoiskyy. We at Internews Ukraine have been reporting on Ukraine’s developments in our English language publication Ukraine – World. But this is very characteristic of Ukraine’s political character. Progress in Ukraine has always been marked by two steps forward and one step back. This is just that one step back phase.

So do you think when Zelenskyy decided to run for president he wanted to review Maidan’s legacies. Is that what we are heading to?

I will repeat here what I said earlier. Zelenskyy does not represent anti-Maidan. He is a non-Maidan president. He did not have any clear vision when he was elected but he might drift in the anti-Maidan direction. Should this occur, Ukrainian civil society would be forced to counter these developments.

Volodymyr Yermolenko is a philosopher, writer, Director of Analytics at Internews Ukraine and Editor-in-Chief at UkraineWorld

Kateryna Pryshchepa is a Ukrainian journalist, PhD candidate and frequent contributor to New Eastern Europe.


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