Supreme Betrayal: What Ukrainians Think About Their Parliament

As Ukrainians prepare to vote in yet another snap parliamentary election, understanding the reasons underlying their exceptionally low opinion of parliament and deputies helps to explain why political novices are leading in the polls.

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Focus group research found citizens’ ideas about political elites’ corruption and inauthenticity underpinned their disgust and disappointment in the post-Maidan Rada.  

Although Volodymyr Zelenskyy only declared his candidacy for the president on 31 December, his overwhelming electoral victory in the April presidential election did not come out of the blue. It was the product of identifiable sentiments among Ukrainian citizens, which while diverse in terms of socio-economic preferences and linguistic and ethnic cleavages, were more or less united in their disgust with the current political elites’ conduct and their corruption. Zelenskyy, as an outsider, was able to harness this rejection of the existing political class in his election and use it in the populist and legally questionable decision to call snap parliamentary elections. 

The desire for renewal of the political elite by large sections of society is a key animating force in the election campaign, shaping parties’ choice of candidates, campaign strategies and citizens’ voting preferences. By exploring citizens’ perceptions of parliament and deputies, we can better understand the source of their desire for elite renewal and begin to explain the patterns of party support indicated in polls – particularly the unprecedentedly high rating for ostensibly brand new parties Sluga Narodu, but also Slava Varkarchuk’s Holos, both of which have explicitly eschewed sitting deputies from their party lists while the parties of more established politicians, including those represented in the current Rada, are struggling in the ratings

Big data, little trust

Global, longitudinal data sets like the World Values Survey point to a pattern of declining public confidence in parliaments over time [1] and comparing the latest comparative data (2011) data finds Ukraine’s Rada sharing a similar negative rating to the national legislatures of Columbia, Libya and the United States, with the parliaments in Romania, Haiti, Poland, Peru and Slovenia even more distrusted [2]. So, the Rada is not unique in evoking extremely negative reactions amongst the citizens it is supposed to represent, but it does command significantly less support than other parliaments in the post-Soviet space and is consistently among the least trusted institutions in Ukraine [10]. While parliaments are becoming less trusted, we do not know why this is, with competing explanations pointing to the complexities of contemporary representation [3], unrealistically high citizens’ expectations [4] and the role of the media [5]. Studies of West European parliaments reveal that citizens obtain most of their information about politics from television and that the media focus parliamentary coverage on conflicts, personal lobbying and empty seats in the plenary chamber [6]. Ukraine is no exception to these trends, leaving us with something of a chicken and egg problem in terms of establishing the relationship between media portrayal and citizens’ perceptions of the Rada.

Focusing in: Kyivans on the Rada

As a student of the Verkhovna Rada for over 20 years, it would be hard to miss the extremely negative reaction my research topic evoked in Ukrainians from different regions and socio-economic groups, or the Facebook memes about deputies. However, focus group data collected in Kyiv in June 2016 begins to provide more systematic insights into the way Ukrainians from diverse social groups perceive the parliament, the ideas underpinning these perceptions and the impact of the Revolution of Dignity. Through this we can better understand their overwhelming current desire for elite change. The focus groups are denoted A, B, C and D [7]. When asked open questions about their associations with the words ‘Verkhovna Rada’, the word ‘lobbying’ was mentioned in all focus groups, quickly followed by ‘corruption’, accompanied by expressions of disappointment that the new authorities elected after Maidan had not brought about sufficient change [8]. The influence of media representations of the Rada was evident in the examples citizens’ cited, but it was also evident that participants, particularly the most politically disengaged, processed such media presentations in terms of their personal experiences of the electoral process (for example, revulsion at being offered bribes at polling stations in 2012 (D)) when formulating their opinions about the Rada and deputies.

The idea that most deputies sought (or often bought) a parliamentary seat in order to protect and promote their own businesses, or those of a patron, were clearly articulated in all focus groups, although this idea was somewhat less pronounced among the students. Here is a fairly typical exchange:

Yura, 42: There is more business there [in parliament] than politics

Ihor, 42: And populism is a distracting manoeuvre while deputies make money for themselves there (focus group C).  

So, deputies were widely perceived to be self-serving and working for their own rapacious interests, and this had not changed significantly after Maidan (B, C, D). Relatedly, deputies were also seen as the foot soldiers of various oligarchs who had the ability to stifle reform and advance their own interests of diverting state resources for themselves (B, C, D). As well as controlling the votes of a number of deputies, participants pointed to oligarchs’ other means of leverage in parliament:

Olia, 48: If the person who is protecting [kryshuet] Liashko is not interested [in the passage of a certain law], then Liashko starts a fight in the well of the chamber. Like a clown, he will break something

Emma, 46: We understand all this now [after Maidan]. We recalibrated [our opinion of politics]. They remained on the same level, but we did not… (focus group B)

Such exchanges convey a thoroughgoing distrust of deputies, and a keen sense of the inauthenticity of their actions. It also encapsulates another theme widely expressed at least among Kyivans in private conversations: that the Maidan politicised them, and made them much more discerning in their sources of information and in their reception of political performances, and so much harder to deceive in the future. 

While participants had welcomed the influx of new deputies from civil society in the 2014 elections (A, B, C, D), they lamented there were too few to make a difference despite their best intentions and that their reform efforts were blocked by the established politicians and oligarchic groups (A, B, C, D). One participant felt that such journalists, Donbas war veterans and civil society actors had been used simply to beautify the party lists and attract votes (Aleksandr, 58, C) while another explained how rapidly they were corrupted. She spoke about Mykhailo Havryliuk, a Maidan activist who shot to fame because he was stripped and beaten by the police in January 2014: 

Tatiana, 48: Havryliuk is [in the Rada] now. You saw how he cried when he was paraded naked on Maidan, but the time comes when this person gets into the Verkhovna Rada and has [the privileges of] deputies, and that is it. He is busy with his life and sorting out jobs for his children and grandchildren. Schemes, paintings, houses already… Now they get [into the Rada] and make money in business (B).

It is not clear whether Tatiana was exaggerating here for effect or really believed this was the case –   Havryliuk was only 37 at the time and did not have grandchildren – but her choice of words revealed her attitude to the new generation of parliamentarians and conveyed a deep sense of disappointment and frustration of the hopes of Maidan in which she was an active participant. Her colleague, Nataliya (46, B) concurred, explaining that former anti-corruption journalists and Maidan activists would be quickly socialised into being a parliamentarian and wouldn’t live on their official salary. The implication here was that any positive effects from having such people in parliament (such as by exposing corrupt schemes) would be short-lived. So, as well as attracting corrupt individuals whose aim was to protect/advance their business, the Rada also corrupted new recruits, and it was seen as almost impossible to remain morally untainted there (B, C, D). This sense of the corrupting influence of the Rada was compounded by the hypocrisy participants saw when civil society activists elected in 2014 who had been regarded as moral authorities and deputies who had previously protested against knopkodavstvo (voting for other deputies) were now engaged in this practice themselves (A, C). This augmented the keen sense of disappointment and betrayal underlying their generalised distrust of deputies as individuals and in the Rada as an institution. This notion was encapsulated by Halya (44, D) who confided that she and her colleagues simply called the Rada “the Verkhovna Zrada (Supreme Betrayal)”. Thus, there was a clear implication that the entire cohort of the existing political elite was tainted and needed to be replaced wholesale by fresh blood in order to expunge corruption and permit the enactment of necessary reforms. 

The populist temptations of Rada reform

Binary notions of a corrupted elite versus a morally pure people are integral to the populist [9] style of politics, and although not a populist in the conventional sense, Zelenskyy has successfully used aspects of this style. While ducking the opportunity to push through parliamentary elections on open party lists, an urgent presidential bill to criminalise knopkodavstvo and introduce huge fines for this was initiated, while bills sanctioning deputies’ absenteeism and curbing their immunity from prosecution were also promised. Of course, there was little prospect of these bills being adopted by the current Rada, but Zelenskyy’s team used them to signal their attention to long-standing bugbears of the electorate and should be understood as part of the election campaign of Sluga Naroda. The danger with this sort of populist initiative is that if Zelenskyy is able to form some sort of parliamentary majority around Sluga Naroda after the election, the boot will be on the other foot as they try to adopt their government’s bills with a heterogenous group of individuals united by very little. And if they too come to rely on knopkodavstvo, citizens trust will be further eroded, and even the hope of a ‘clean sweep’ will be dashed. 

However, a new Rada with an unprecedented influx of fresh faces brought in by citizen’s desire for (among other things) a less corrupt and self-serving elite could offer an opening for the new president to press forward on stalled reforms that could engender wider systemic change and hold the possibility for reforming the Rada and re-engaging the population. A whole battery of parliamentary reforms developed through cooperation between the current Rada leadership, civil society and international partners are languishing in various parliamentary committees because even in Ukraine’s most reformist parliament to date the incentives to give up their privileges were insufficient. To reform the Rada will require massive social pressure, and this is not the top societal priority, but after the elections there will be a window of opportunity to progress key reforms such as thoroughgoing electoral reform (for the next parliamentary and local elections) [11] and judicial reform that could fundamentally restructure the rules of the game.

Notes

[1] Pippa Norris (2011), Democratic Deficit, Cambridge University Press, p. 102.

[2] NB. World Values Surveys ask about ‘confidence’ in parliament, rather than trust, but these terms are often used interchangeably.  

[3] Werner Patzelt (2006), ‘Parliaments and their symbols. Topography of a field of research’ in Emma Crewe and Marion Muller (eds.), Rituals in Parliaments: Political, Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on Europe and the United States, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 159-182.

[4] Matthew Flinders and Alexandra Kelso (2011), ‘Mind the Gap: Political Analysis, Public Expectations and the Parliamentary Decline Thesis’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 13, 249-268.

[5] John Parkinson (2012), Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.64-9.

[6] Federico Russo and Luca Verzzichelli, L (2012), ‘Parliament and Citizens in Italy: An Unfilled Gap’, The Journal of Legislative Studies, 18(3-4), 351-367; Thomas Saalfield and Ralf Dobmeier (2012), ‘The Bundestag and German Citizens: More communication, growing distance’, The Journal of Legislative Studies, 18(3-4), 314-333.

[7] Four focus groups were conducted 22-24 June 2016 with pre-existing social groups that permitted the inclusion of people of various social backgrounds and ages (students (A, aged 21-25), staff at a beauty salon (B, aged 46-54), friendship group of professionals (C, aged 37-58), office workers in SME manufacturing consumer goods (C, aged 25-59)). Focus groups were conducted in a mix of Russian and Ukrainian (according to the individuals’ choice), but the students spoke English. They were transcribed by the author and checked by a native speaker before coding.

[8] A paper currently under review explores a wider range of themes expressed in the data, particularly inauthenticity and bezpredel’ in addition to various facets of corruption.

[9] Benjamin Moffitt (2016) The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[10] Poll data from 2017 and 2018 shows the Rada the least trusted Ukrainian institution, and even less trusted than the Russian media kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=817&page=1

[11] The new electoral code envisaging elections on open party lists adopted on 11th July, if signed, will only come into force in December 2023, i.e. after the next parliamentary elections if they are scheduled for October 2023.

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