Voting, Identity and Security Threats in Ukraine

The Euromaidan events catapulted the previously marginal radical right party, All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda (the “Freedom Party”), to its short-lived prominence. Representatives of the Svoboda party have occupied cabinet posts in the interim government, which has increased anxiety among pro-Russia leaders and citizens. Yet, in the October 2014 elections, Svoboda’s electoral support was halved and, by a narrow margin, the party failed to cross the five percent threshold needed to obtain seats in the parliament. It is yet to be seen whether this merely represents a temporary setback for the party or its demise.

The most recent electoral results do not diminish the fact that, in 2012, Svoboda amassed over ten percent, which is a noticeable electoral result for a radical right party [1]. What explains its success? Scholars have attributed Svoboda’s 2012 achievement in the parliamentary elections to a complex set of factors, including: dissatisfaction with the major parties, protest voting against President Yanukovych, anxieties associated with the 2012 language law, resonance of anti-establishment appeals with the voters, disappointment with economic and political corruption, xenophobia, economic downturn and the re-emergence of pre-war legacies [2].

Although these explanations advance our understanding of Svoboda’s recent electoral success, little is still known about why voters supported Svoboda and the degree to which xenophobia played role in voting decisions. One might presume that anti-Russian sentiment drives Svoboda support. However, using an original survey conducted in 2010, I show that support for Svoboda was rooted less in extreme levels of xenophobia vis-à-vis Russians, and more in economic anxieties and fears of loosing sovereignty.

Figure 1 shows substantial differences across distinct sovereignty threats. Fear of general sovereignty threats was already high in 2010, at least among half of the parties. Figure 1 disaggregates sovereignty threats into three specific sources of threats, two from abroad and one domestic. Sovereignty threat from Russia polarized the respondents to a much greater degree than sovereignty threats from Russians in Ukraine since voters embrace less centrist positions on threats and the extremes are further apart. The European Union is not feared at all: all respondents agree that the EU is not a danger to the Ukrainian sovereignty and this position holds for all types of political attachments.

Svoboda voters fear Russia and fear Russians in Ukraine. However, heightened fears of Russia clearly separated Svoboda voters from all other voters (Figure 1). Svoboda voters are unique in their view of Russia as a sovereignty threat, but they are not extreme in viewing Russian citizens of Ukraine as a threat. Among Svoboda voters, fear of Russia is high and unique, while their fear of Russians in Ukraine is high, but not unique, since voters of other, ideologically similar parties, exhibit similar levels of fear.

Figure 1: Sovereignty Threats by Parties

Means with weighted bootstrapped standard errors. Scale: 1 – agree that sovereignty is threatened, and 4 – disagree. Source: Bustikova, 2010

Is Svoboda support driven by economic anxieties? The results unequivocally show that Svoboda voters fear economic threats (Figure 2). Svoboda voters stand out in two aspects: they are distinct in agreeing that their family is worse off than two years ago, and that all Ukrainian families are worse off than two years ago. At a personal level, Svoboda voters expect to be worse off in the future.

The sense of economic depravity among the Svoboda voters is profound. There is a twenty percent gap between Svoboda voters and all other respondents in their (average) perception that their family financial situation has recently deteriorated. Responses to questions about economic threats indicate that Svoboda voters come from a pool of voters who deeply fear exposure to economic insecurity at the personal, familial and societal level (Figure 2). If support for Svoboda is driven in part by economic anxieties, we should expect that a deteriorating Ukrainian economy will expand the voting base for the radical right, all else equal.

Figure 2: Economic Threat Perception by Parties

Means with weighted bootstrapped standard errors. Scale: 1 – better, 3 – worse off. Source: Bustikova, 2010

The survey has shown that concerns about the state’s policies and fears about sovereignty threats trumped identity animosities. These findings should provide pause to claims that, at the core of Svoboda support, is a disproportionately high level of animosity against other ethnic groups in Ukraine, and that Svoboda represents an extreme xenophobic and “fascist” force in Ukraine. Although the levels of inter-group hostility were very moderate in 2010, the fact that they polarized the political system has contributed to the escalation of perceived identity threats.

The survey shows that Svoboda voters feared Ukrainian Russians more than the voters of other parties but, overall, the fear was very mild, yet in the case of Svoboda, distinct from other voters.  During peacetime, this suggests that the Russian “fifth column” has strong potential to radicalize the radical right electorate.  Given the outcome of 2014 elections, In light of turbulent events, parties that demonstrate military competence and the ability to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity have the upper hand and have siphoned Svoboda’s supporters away. In times of crisis, physical security issues force the electorate to coalesce behind strong-armed leaders, not parties with a niche appeal.


[1] The average vote shore for radical right parties in Eastern Europe (based on 93 elections) is 6.5%. If we exclude countries where radical right parties do not exist, the average vote share is 7.7% (Source: Bustikova 2014).

[2] Cantorovich, 2013; Kuzio, 2007; Likhachev, 2013; Moser 2014; Polyakova, 2014; Shekovtsov, 2011; Shekhovtsov, 2015; Umland, 2013; Umland and Shekhovtsov, 2013. The Svoboda party has been characterized an ethno-centric and anti-Semitic party: “Svoboda is a racist party promoting explicitly ethnocentric and anti-Semitic ideas. Its main programmatic points are Russo- and xenophobia as well as, more recently, a strict anti-immigration stance. It is an outspoken advocate of an uncritical heroization of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – an interwar and World War II ultra-nationalist party tainted by its temporary collaboration with the Third Reich, as well as its members’ participation in genocidal actions against Poles and Jews, in western Ukraine, during German occupation. Although Svoboda emphasizes the European character of the Ukrainian people, it is an anti-Western, anti-liberal, and anti-EU grouping” [Umland 2010: 1].

What Ukraine needs most now? Evidence from Slovakia Reforms

I visited Ukraine for the first time in March, only a few weeks after the tragic and heroic events around Maidan. Since that time I have begun to intensively think about how to help Ukraine with necessary reforms. I spent almost all of my professional life preparing and implementing economic reforms in my country, Slovakia. The main aim was to change my country from backwardness and stagnation into a modern, competitive European state. We enjoyed mixed success, but in general we can say today that Slovakia has produced a successful transition.

We are not only in the EU but also in the Eurozone (unlike neighboring Visegrad countries, Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary). We have recorded the highest cumulative economic growth among all EU countries from the breakdown of the communism until now and we have been one of the world’s most successful economies in that period. At the time of independence in 1993, Slovakia had only 62% of the Czech Republic’s GDP per capita. Just this year, we caught up with our westerly neighbour on this metric. Twenty-five years ago Slovakia produced antiquated Soviet tanks and another heavy military equipment but not one car. Today we are the number one producer of cars in the whole world, per capita. The most important reason for that success is reforms. Let me illustrate this by comparing convergence success of the Visegrad countries from 2004 until 2008. Over those four years, GDP per capita in PPP in comparison with the EU average improved in Hungary by 1%, Czech Republic by 3%, Poland by 5% and Slovakia by 16%. These were the first four years of EU membership for all of these countries, therefore the big difference among their convergence progress has to have had different reasons. This reason is reforms.

Slovakia during 2003 prepared, and from the beginning of 2004 implemented, a very bold and complex package of deep structural reforms. In 2004 Slovakia was named the most reformist country globally by the World Bank. I am not writing this in order to praise my country or myself. I am writing this because of two main reasons. Firstly, it shows that reforms work. It shows that if country is able to implement a deep and comprehensive package of reforms it will bring relatively quick results.  Secondly, I think that our experience shows Ukraine now has a real chance to achieve similar success and progress if necessary reforms are implemented.

Ukraine in comparison with Slovakia 10, 15 or 20 years ago has some disadvantages and some advantages but the urgent need for reforms is indisputable. During the last half a year I visited Ukraine three times. I attended conferences and spoke with dozens of domestic and foreign experts and I can say that Ukraine today has incomparably more domestic and foreign experts for preparing necessary reforms than Slovakia had years ago. But I am afraid that all these conferences, seminars, and initiatives are too focused on the technical and professional part of the challenge. Of course it is important to have well prepared proposals for public administration reform, judicial and police reform, tax reform, decentralization etc. It is also very important to have proper institutional infrastructure for effectively utilising all this domestic and foreign expertise and support offered from NGO’s, international institutions, donors etc. This is all important but misses something relevant in this debate and in the current Ukrainian reality. Today the content of reforms is not the major problem. There are a lot of both good and bad evidence for how to reform taxes, pensions, labour market, public administration etc, but much more important and difficult is the political part of the job. Reforms mean changes and people don’t like changes. People fear changes and this is the reality everywhere and it is also natural and normal.

Anytime I am asked what was the most important precondition for Slovakian reforms and what is also the most important precondition in general in any country, my answer is the same – political leadership. The more reforms that are needed the more and stronger political leadership is necessary. We all know that Ukraine urgently needs a lot of changes.

Political leadership means to have leaders with a strong and legitimate political mandate, vision, will and courage to do what is needed despite it being difficult and full of conflict, pressure and difficulties.

A strong political mandate can be created only by democratic elections. Therefore it is very important that Ukraine has just recently elected a pro-reform and pro-European president and the upcoming parliamentary elections are similarly vital.

A strong and legitimate mandate means commitment of the political parties to reforms and to change the country for the better. Political parties’ pre-election programs are the best platform for these pro-reform commitments and then after elections the program declaration of the new government which will be created as common denominator of the pre-election programs of the coalition parties. This is the normal, standard process how to not only gain a political mandate but also to have tools for enacting promises and commitments and fighting against populism and irresponsibility in politics. I know that Ukraine is not a standard developed parliamentary democracy but my own country also wasn’t and still isn’t. Despite this, or even because of this, for deep and comprehensive reforms to proceed, it is necessary and important to develop this mechanism of legitimate mandates, public control and political commitments.

Ukraine has a lot of capable, educated people and strong NGO’s. There is a lot of positive energy accumulated in favour of change and a better future. Now, a few weeks before elections it is very important to focus and use these capabilities and energy for strengthening political support for reforms but also to create enforceable commitments for politicians to implement necessary reforms.

I know that Ukraine needs most to save its sovereignty and integrity. But apart from this, and also as a precondition for sustainable sovereignty and integrity, Ukraine needs economic prosperity. And for this, reforms are essential.