Ukrainian populists : in favour of everything good, against everything bad - Mariia Chaplia

This article is part of "Abusing the People: Global Challenges of Authoritarian Populism", the upcoming publication of the Libertarian Club...

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After the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine was expected to enter an era of radical reforms, which however stagnant still remain on the agenda, but haven't started being implemented by this very day. There are two major enemies of freedom to be blamed for this: corruption and populism. Both of them reinforce each other and together make up a harmonious cornerstone of the Ukrainian political system. While corruption stands for a convenient method of sorting out affairs at all levels, populism serves as its blinding form, which holds the notion “in support of everything good, against everything bad" as the defining element.

Everything for everyone

Unlike their like-minded Western colleagues, Ukrainian populists haven't defined the interests of the middle class as their target; they make promises to everyone notwithstanding social status and age. When the elderly cry for higher pensions and students want more government funded scholarships, Ukrainian populists enthusiastically step in with their rhetoric about the importance of increasing government spending and preserving free education. When small businesses start making loud pleas about too high rates, they lament with all their heart about the need to reduce taxes. Should you ask them about the relevance of keeping more than 1500 public enterprises, Ukrainian populists will say that the number must be decreased, but the people working there can't be left without their jobs.

What is achieved at the end of the day can be rather summed up as “nothing for no one". As a result, according to a recent poll from the International Republican Institute, only 18 percent of the surveyed backs President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman, while 76 percent hold an unfavorable opinion of both. Though Ukrainians have presidential and parliamentary elections in two-years, it's their prerogative to make the right decisions. But will they?

Paternalistic Ukrainian society doesn't punish populists

Due to a weak capitalist tradition in the Ukraine, which corresponds with more than 70 years of socialist rule by the Soviets, it comes as no surprise that Ukrainians got used to relying on government in almost all spheres of their life. Starting from 1991, when Ukraine gained its independence, Ukrainians have been consistently trying to elect the “right" politician, that should as a Messiah step out of the crowd, take the power given to him by the electorate and without any abuses heal all the wounds every single Ukrainian citizen might have. As with every unattainable goal, the idea is just to keep moving towards it at all costs by gradually decreasing the value of every next effort. This led to a situation where poor quality politicians, who never stick to their promises and steal public money, get easily re-elected by making changes to their rhetoric.

The fact that there is not a single party in Ukraine, apart from the nationalist “Svoboda", that has an ideological backbone, also contributes to this. In most cases, Ukrainian politicians “change colours" by swinging between political parties and opinions with the speed of the light, and, thus, make it hard for voters to remember what they proclaimed some time ago. Therefore, populist politicians in Ukraine always have all requests for accountability dismissed.

Donbas war plays to the populists' advantage

Every Ukrainian politician feels obliged to start his every speech with a tribute to those who got killed or injured during the Donbas war by placing all the burden of responsibility on other Ukrainian politicians or, more often, on the Russian government. According to UN figures released in June 2017, at least 10,090 people have been killed and 23,966 injured since the Donbas conflict started in April 2014. The bigger the numbers are, the vaster a field for manipulation is. Henceforth, these numbers are used to justify the necessity of inefficient policies and distract attention from corruption and power abuse.

The deprivation of Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship without any legal merits, failed decentralisation and justice reforms, extension of moratorium on the sales of the agricultural lands, nationalisation of the biggest bank, sugar quotas and price regulation, tens of loans from the IMF, failed privatisation and anti-corruption reforms, new bureaucratic institutions, a higher than before minimum wage and increased tax rates stand out among numerous steps made by President Poroshenko to usurp power. The most important thing here is that even though the outcomes of these policies are outrageous and have placed Ukraine on the 166th position in 2017 Index of Economic Freedom Index, they have been mostly tolerated by the population which accepts that war time requires harsh measures.

More freedom, less Roshen chocolate

If the Ukraine with its 37.6 percent of overall tax burden and public debt equal to 80.2 percent of GDP suffers from diabetes, where the sugar level makes the extent of government intervention, then what Ukraine needs is a serious medical treatment, not Roshen [a company owned by the President] chocolate.

Yet Ukrainian populists are too obsessed with remaining in power and keeping their inconsistent and senseless rhetoric, as well as public money flowing so long as it is unpunishable. If you know you can steal a candy from a public basket when no one is watching without any consequences, why not do it? Ukrainian populists have been driven by such approach for years. Not only have the Maidan murders not been investigated, but also the former corrupt political elites still enjoy the protection of the contemporary government.

Every social change is built from the bottom up. In Ukraine, civil society is the major advocate of freedom. Back in 2013, during the Revolution of Dignity people, united by the idea of freedom, started founding many grassroots organisations. The process is still ongoing, and even though most of them are not liberal in the classical sense, they aim at liberal improvements, such as transparency, justice reform, electronic governance, LGBT rights, education reform, etc.

While Ukrainian populists keep promising everything to everyone, and poisoning Ukraine with their sugary intervention, grassroots organisations are pushing for real change and making Ukraine freer.

This article is part of "Abusing the People: Global Challenges of Authoritarian Populism", the upcoming publication of the Libertarian Club - Libek.

Mariia Chaplia is a libertarian activist from Ukraine. She holds a degree in law from the Taras Shevchenko University of Kyive. She has been involved in the liberty movement since 2016, first as a Local Coordinator of the Students for Liberty, and later as a National Coordinator for European Students for Liberty. She also started the SFL incorporated group in Ukraine and served as a chair of Ukrainian Students for Liberty. In March 2017, Mariia won European Students of Liberty Student of the Year Award.