Mykhailo Minakov: The Victory of Populists in 2019 Would Doom Ukraine for a Period of Despair

Interview with political philosopher Mykhailo Minakov, Principal Investigator on Ukraine at the Kennan Institute

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Populism! No topic has been discussed so willingly and by so many VoxUkraine authors – we have already published more than ten articles (which is indirect proof of how relevant the topic is). Yet, most of the content dealt with “Western” problems. It wasn’t easy to find an expert who would have profound, yet not stereotypical ideas about Ukrainian populism. But we managed to. Our remarkable guest was Mykhailo Minakov, Principal Investigator on Ukraine at the Kennan Institute. In less than 50 minutes Mykhailo presented the whole anthology of Ukrainian populism, offered substantial and bright descriptions of the main “players”, nature, “fuel”, aims, instruments and essence of Ukrainian populist policy.

Western media and experts have long been worried – everyone and their mother have published regular or even front page articles titled “Rise of populism”, “Renaissance of populism”. But if we speak about Ukraine specifically: are we experiencing more populism or is this the result of “hot” topic?

I would love to give you a specific answer but it simply does not exist. For each country, each political system populism will signify something different.

Typology-wise we can divide all ideologies into thick and thin ones. Thick ideologies include liberalism, conservatism, socialism, communism, fascism, anarchism and others. They have a clear definition for society and state, their values and objectives, the roles that people and society play in them. Thin ideologies have a different nature, and populism is one of them.

What does this “thinness” mean”? Why are populism and, if I am not mistaken, elitism called thin ideologies?

“Thinness” of an ideology, its auxiliary nature, means that it can find its way into any thick ideology and use it by adjusting the values and practices of its supporters.
Thin ideologies like populism, cult of the leader or elitism may “infiltrate” socialism or fascism and change their basic meanings completely.

Nowadays the influence of populism is particularly noticeable in liberal democracies, where it disrupts normal functioning of the rule of law. According to one of the most general definitions democracy means “control over rulers by citizens”. This control is exercised by the division of government into branches, so that the power is not concentrated in the hands of one person or a small group of persons, and the development of formal public institutions. Populism undermines the possibility of control, usually through disruption of the efficiency of formal public institutions. As an illustration, I can provide the desire of populists to strip judiciary of independence or make parties redundant by replacing them with a populist leader who claims special – “direct” voter confidence.

“Thinness” of an ideology, its auxiliary nature, means that it can find its way into any thick ideology and use it by adjusting the values and practices of its supporters. Thin ideologies like populism, cult of the leader or elitism may “infiltrate” socialism or fascism and change their basic meanings completely.

Perhaps 90% of all Ukrainian parties that pass the 3% barrier fall under this general description. To be more precise, which of the Ukrainian parties may be labelled as populist? Let me remind you, that our top parties currently include Batkivshchyna, Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc, For Life (Za Zhyttia) (Vadym Rabinovych’s party), Samopomich (Self-Help), Hromadianska Pozytsiya (Civic Stance) (Hrytsenko’s party), Oppobloc, Svoboda and Liashko’s Radical Party.

Back in 1960s, when scientists started researching populism a definition emerged – “populism is the shadow of democracy”. If functional democracy, or at least in our case, political pluralism and relatively competitive and practically unpredictable elections exist, then for parties to use populism as tactics is something inevitable. Let us assume that a party has a strong programme and in order to win the elections they are using voter confidence in their leader (group of leaders) who are promoting their programme, which is formulated as a set of populist messages.

Populism is most harmful when a group claiming control over one of power centres organizes a leader-centered party, which has a leader who has voter confidence instead of a programme. The key notion here is the non-formal confidence in the leader and generation of non-confidence “in them” – politicians, parties, democratic institutions (parliament or judiciary).

Still coming back to Ukraine…

In case of Ukraine, The Radical Party is probably the brightest example of a populist party. Undoubtedly, the character of this party is immoral, anti-democratic and anti-constitutional. By exploiting the hopes of most unfortunate Ukrainians – residents of villages and small towns, they take away the voters from ideological parties in those regions.

Another populist project is the party For Life. Those deceived by this party are the urban lower class.

Initiatives of Batkivshchyna, Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc Solidarity and Oppobloc leaders are becoming more and more populistic as well. Recent revelations of Mr. Hrytsenko in favour of authoritarianism also smell of populism. Samopomich and Svoboda ideological groups are currently in search of their “thin” tactics.

It is important to realize that parties in Ukraine, with a rare exception, are individual media and political projects without stable ideologies, constant control over leaders and incessant communication with party members and compatriots. When there are no real parties and party programmes, populism is inevitable.

I have been hearing this for a number of years, “Ukraine needs leader-centered parties and it is a problem”. But isn’t it that parties with charismatic leaders are winning all over the world?

Yes, both in young and established democracies as well as in many authoritarian regimes today there are many “leader-centered parties” and other populist movements.

A recent upsetting example is Italy, where at the March elections populist parties won and formed their government.

During those elections, I was in close touch with a group of politicians from the Democratic Party of Italy and on some occasions witnessed the success of their populist competitors. The thing is that Italy has recently changed its election system, which now has an important “majority” component as compared to decades of solely party-based elections. Old established parties have no experience of communicating with voters in majority districts.

But recent elections also showed the strength of real parties. Even young politicians from old parties are dedicated to their own political programmes. I would even say they are too focused on them. During meetings with their voters, instead of having a dialogue with people concerned about a variety of problems, the democrats chose to speak about their programme only. These parties are very strong but their lack of desire to talk to voters was obvious.

Even young politicians from old parties are dedicated to their own political programmes. I would even say they are too focused on them. During meetings with their voters, instead of having a dialogue with people concerned about a variety of problems, the democrats chose to speak about their programme only. These parties are very strong but their lack of desire to talk to voters was obvious.

Irresponsible politicians and clowns (I am not exaggerating here) used that deficit and promised easy solutions to complicated problems. As a result, the Democratic Party, which has a grounded ideology, did not get many seats in the parliament, while populists emerged victorious. And here the latter demonstrated inability for political communication post-elections: it is one thing to come to power because of voter gullibility but it is totally different when you need to actually assume the functions of government.

What do you mean by political communication?

We should not forget Aristotle’s definition of politics as “communication for common good”. Here communication does not mean simple talking, it is an exchange or even clash of ideas, objectives and views for the benefit of all. Only the participants of such communication – dialogue participants, who discuss, vote and decide on how to dispose of the common good, are a political community.

Populists undermine the awareness of this communication. Their tactics is detrimental for the common good – by comparing the “good” people to the “bad” elites they spread hate and division or even exclusion of compatriots from the communication about the common good.

 “The politics of revenge and vengeance” is particularly dominant in rhetoric of Ukrainian populists

You touched a bit on my next question: are there any specific features that Ukrainian populism has demonstrated in recent years? Can we trace any ideological evolution of our populism? For instance, first they compared the sacred Ukrainian people to the provisional communists, then oligarchs and now it appears to me that they are comparing the people to the corrupted government in general…

Yes, populism in our country has undermining properties – it is always aimed at institutionalized public government. It is disseminating mistrust of formal institutions (unfortunately, the mistrust is justified) and instead of treatment suggests “amputation”. Populists are trying to undermine respect towards that part of state, which is worth respect, attention and public involvement in therapy for those institutions, which should be preserved in the Ukrainian state (for instance, representative parliament, accessible justice and local self-governance). Because of what populists do, citizens become alienated from their republic and their common business.

What is the risk of such rhetoric?

If people alienate themselves from their republic, the very sense of civic-mindedness disappears. The essence of civic-mindedness in a republic is more than clear: you as a free citizen establish the law through your representatives and abide by that law. That is why they say that being a citizen means being politically free – you keep to the rules that you yourself establish.

And if we refuse our civic stance, give up on voting, sell our vote or unwisely “follow our heart when voting” for a populist, it basically means that we are losing the right to freedom.

If people alienate themselves from their republic, the very sense of civic-mindedness disappears. The essence of civic-mindedness in a republic is more than clear: you as a free citizen establish the law through your representatives and abide by that law.

In this respect, I tend to see populism as another type of corruption that destroys the very fabric of political communication and the possibilities of a democratic state. It is the same as in bribery when the difference between public and private sector is not maintained and in order to seize power private sector assets are used (personal confidence of a citizen in populist leader or movement).

I am sorry, but let’s come back from the profound concepts to real life world. It turns out that all Ukrainian parties are populist to a certain extent simply because they do not have a programme. But if we look at ratings of politicians, the populist rhetoric is in high demand. Populism is efficient. Why?

Unfortunately, you are right. No Ukrainian party will make it to the parliament or local council if they do not use populist techniques.

So where does the demand come from? What does it depend on?

Here we need to look at social and social and psychological dynamics in the society, whether we are afraid or relaxed. This predetermines what techniques populists will use and how successful they are going to become.

Ukrainian society is living in the times of war. This spawns insecurity and fear that we have used to over the four-year period. This fear is deep-seated, numb, forced into collective unconscious and turns into massive mistrust of formal institutions. The fear makes us divide the world into our and their, hate the nuances, unite into “companies”, aggressive packs – very closed and not ready for dialogue. If they are not ready for dialogue, it means that they fall out of the political communication.

At the same time, there is no conscious demand for populism in Ukraine. I have participated or had access to profound interview and focus group data since 2014. This data shows that our citizens have an extremely short timeline and a very limited spatial frameworks. Local and immediate interests prevail: new kindergarten, road, hospital. People perceive national elections as trade, as an opportunity to get a material benefit from candidates. The negative side of this approach is that we vote for whoever offers more…

Therefore, this is a kind of naive utilitarian approach

Yes, it may seem so at first glance. This is also partly the correct response to political and social and economic system that has emerged in Ukraine.

However, the response also has a populist component. Unfortunately, when discussing future strategic problems citizens express a kind of demand for those politicians who will get revenge and punish existing rulers as well as everybody else whom they consider redundant in their political community (they are usually labelled as “others’ in terms of ethnicity and language, religion or sexual preferences). The irrational component of our politics, such a long-lasting cold civil war, is heated by the war with external enemy.

I hope that we will have less and less of this irrationality as the war becomes more distant and the state becomes more efficient.

It is necessary to create conditions under which it is easier and faster to invoke trust, sympathy, empathy and the desire to do something together than to play with hate.

Populists consciously play on such irrational fears, the desire to get revenge and reach justice at any cost. What is the potential of such ideas?

I believe that people are kinder than they think or say about themselves. It is not only more beneficial but also easier to manipulate and play on good intentions. It takes a lot of time to pump up the hate. It is necessary to create conditions under which it is easier and faster to invoke trust, sympathy, empathy and the desire to do something together than to play with hate.

Hoping for the best is one thing but the reality is different. Recent surveys show that at least a third of voters are ready to give their votes to parties that have no adequate rational ideas that could be implemented. How can we explain this if not by hate?

Demodernization trends are growing in Ukraine along with refusal from modernity with its rationalism, procedure and formal rules. We got lost somewhere on the way to bright democratic future we set out for in 1991. In the historical dead-end we found ourselves in, collectivism and irrationality are becoming more and more influential. At the same time, we are having less and less social awareness. It is substituted for ethnic, ethnolinguistic or religious affiliation.

It should also be mentioned that electoral rationality is closely connected to economic. When you plan on earning for a decent pension in your personalized pension fund, for let’s say, 40 years of work experience, then you assess the actions of politicians quite differently and become involved in overseeing what they do.

In Ukraine, an absolute majority of voters have no idea how much they pay in taxes and do not understand how the decisions of government affect them personally. The society lives within the time frame “till tomorrow and the day after that”: today we had the road built – that’s good enough, maybe before the elections we can make them build a playground. In a way, it is self-replicating poverty – both economic and mental.

If everything is so hopeless, then is it even worth looking for alternative to the massive populist rhetoric in Ukraine? Or should the new leaders perhaps at once learn to eat literal dirt when speaking in Verkhovna Rada and promise 1 USD for 8 UAH?

Attempts at contrasting apparent populists with a certain clear set of ideas have been made and they should be made. Most our parties have no ideologies but have a stance on a number of ideologemes – important issues such as land market, language, church, attitude towards NATO and others. In general, there are political groups concentrating on protection of certain ideologemes in the long run.

Before the war, centrists had the most support. It was politically justified that if a party was too right-wing or too left-wing, they found themselves overboard.

Most our parties have no ideologies but have a stance on a number of ideologemes – important issues such as land market, language, church, attitude towards NATO and others. In general, there are political groups concentrating on protection of certain ideologemes in the long run.

At the same time, our Ukrainian centrism meant indecisiveness and slowness when conducting reforms. Inefficiency of formal institutions always emerges at times of reformб yet with the indecisive reformers inefficiency spans over years, becomes a norm and gives way to informal groups and clans.

I had a question: what is the connection between the state of reforms in a country and sensitivity to populism?

There is a connection. The situation is better with those countries that simultaneously conducted swift economic and political reforms. In such countries the emergence of political corruption and oligarchical or clan seizing of the country either did not happen at all or were postponed till our days (as it happened in Hungary).

Those who conducted swift reforms in early 1990s, like the Baltic countries, quickly moved forward under new conditions. Those conditions soon became a social reality and made clan-like formations more law-abiding.

I would like to stress: it is important not to have distortions and serious delays in the development of political institutions and economy. If we lean on economic reforms only, then poorly developed political institutions will very soon start undermining the economic growth. If we delay with economy and rush the political reforms, the same thing will happen: poor citizens, who are budget money-dependent, in the end start voting for representatives of clans.

Weak economy is the hotbed of populism…

It is seen all so well in small Ukrainian towns… Take a small town budget and you will see that it does not generate revenue and 90% of its income is made up of pension fund and salaries to public sector employees. What politics, what interesting ideas can you offer to voters whose only money is basically government allocated? And when in this sea of despair a bright populist appears and starts telling about “New Vasiuky” it all looks appealing, a kind of political response to despair.

So the test of populism obviously exists and it is hard to resist.

You can only resist such temptations if you change social reality and give people and the country as a whole a chance to grow.

You said that before 2014 indecisive centrists were winning. I have a feeling that the tendency continues to this day…

We had the first wakeup call in 2012 when not really centrist Svoboda got seats in the parliament. In 2014 Narodnyi Front (National Front) was suggesting very radical policy. They were trying to pass off as party of war. PPB-Solidarnist was trying to appear as party of peace. However, both parties were not about ideologies, not about action plan for political parties but about the feelings of voters. It is important to understand that the 2014 elections went down against the background of fear: an active war was unraveling. There were days when Kyivians expected Putin’s armoured vehicles in the city. The fear called either for bold powerful leaders who could fight back or for patriarchal leaders resembling reliable fathers of nation. An ideological party of the last elections was Samopomich with its neoliberal and at times libertarian programme. After the elections, however, they were acting in a completely different manner.

It is important to understand that the 2014 elections went down against the background of fear: an active war was unraveling. There were days when Kyivians expected Putin’s armoured vehicles in the city. The fear called either for bold powerful leaders who could fight back or for patriarchal leaders resembling reliable fathers of nation.

This is nothing new for us…

Unfortunately.

Such a discrepancy between ideology and practice appears since parties have no institutional safeguards that would keep the delegates within value frames and would tell that since their elections programme was about liberty they could not set up and support the blockade of Donbas. In general, Samopomich is of course an evolutionary step in Ukrainian politics – it is a party which has no apparent ideological leader and tries to be ideological.

Either way, the experience of radical imitation has not changed the usual futility of reforms.

Some people believe that in many respects, the growth of populism is related to fake news epidemics, that is to say that people have lost trust in mass media and politicians can now blab all these deceitful nonsenses. Supporters of such a politician will not believe the media that are trying to expose him anyway. We are doing fact checking and I can confirm that it is a really serious problem in Ukraine. As far as recent events are concerned, you must have seen the programme in which Tymoshenko was looking at that piece of paper with state debt figures and then looked up at the camera and said something that was convenient for her. Question: does it make sense to do fact checking of what the politicians say with such a high level of mistrust in media?

Fact checking has always made sense.

If you, as a group of analysts, reveal and expose the lies of a politician, you will probably not convince their die-hard fan, but it may become therapy with far-reaching effects. In general, telling the truth, relying on facts and reality and showing them to others, i. e. shattering the usual social imagination – are harsh things to do. Everybody will hate you for that. They will be shaming you collectively. Trolling you with the entirety of toxic foul mouthing that is characteristic for some of our compatriots.

I saw some feedback to your fact checking of the statements made by Mr. Medvedchuk: very evil, extreme reactions. Yet, I will repeat myself and say that fact checking is extremely important.

At the end of our interview, let us model a situation: it is the year 2019 and populists have won. What serious risks do you see?

The main harm populism is causing to politics lies in lack of respect to liberal and democratic movement of a country and undermining of “citizen-mindedness”. This causes demand for a strong hand. The society starts leaning toward the idea that it is better to “invest” in a long-term dictator. It is a dangerous path with unpredictable results.

If populists win in 2019 we will have another dead-end period in the history of modern Ukraine.

You once said that populists exploit the fact that our society is seriously divided on a dozen of issues: language, religion, nationality, status etc. Is there any recipe for putting the society back together?

If we had this interview in English, I would say that the solution was in “good politics” and “good economy”. If we translate it from English and the dictionary of liberalism, it would mean “responsible and high quality” politics and economy. Good politics means return to national dialogue, fulfilling your pre-election promises, complying with the spirit and letter of Constitution. Which is why the work of such organizations as Centre.UA (and their CHESNO team), which follows whether the promises are kept, is very important. Yet, we should have such organizations not only in Kyiv but also in each, even the smallest, town. They will remind local communities of what has or has not been done of what national and local government had promised.

Good economy is such an economy which gives opportunities and freedom not only to entrepreneurs but also to those of us who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances. This economy gives you a safety net. Here liberal and social democratic ideas complement and strengthen each other, making the state a place where all people and small groups live and not just the imaginary majority. At the same time, the role of neoliberal experiments is narrowed down to sector-based frames…

In general, if we do not drive people to extremes and constantly bring them to political and social economic dead-end, people will respond with responsibility and support of the common business of republic. It does not happen at once but any country, including ours, has a chance to build a good state, economy and society.

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