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End of the road for populism in Ukraine

Ukrainians are having to pay a high price for the success of their revolution, and it is as yet by no means clear what exactly that victory will bring them. The problems in Crimea must be resolved and economic collapse must be averted – two very tall orders.

Anton Shekhovtsov
3 March 2014

The Ukrainian national and democratic revolution has won. The people of Ukraine have paid a high price for the victory. Up to 100 protesters have fallen (they are now called the Heavenly Hundred), thousands have been injured, crippled or disfigured, children have lost their parents. The rage of many Ukrainians, who have lost their relatives, friends and compatriots, is understandable, and the criminals who organised the slaughter must be lawfully brought to justice. 

For some time, the rage gave way to celebration: the corrupt authoritarian regime of Viktor Yanukovych, which during its last days resorted to state-inspired terrorism against the protesters, has been toppled.

Yanukovych’s authoritarianism has lost, but there should be one more loser of the revolution: populism.

Neither rage nor euphoria, however, last long. Almost immediately after Yanukovych fled the capital and, later, the country, Ukraine was faced with a number of economic, political and social problems. If these are not addressed urgently and properly, they could nullify the achievements of the revolution. Today, the newly-elected government must urgently address two most important problems: the military Russian invasion that has already started in the Crimea, the southernmost region of Ukraine, and the dire economic situation.

What lies ahead, beyond these problems which it is to be hoped Ukraine will solve with the support of the international community?

Yanukovych’s corrupt, unenlightened authoritarianism has lost, but there should be one more loser of the revolution: populism. I have in mind two tendencies - right-wing radicalism and ochlocracy or mob rule. 

Right-wing radicalism

I would cautiously suggest that, thanks to the revolution, Ukrainian right-wing radicalism has already lost. Yes, despite all the propaganda produced by the Yanukovych and Putin regimes and some far right and far left Western authors, the Ukrainian revolution, rather than extolling the Ukrainian radical right, may have largely put it to rest. The main Ukrainian far right party, Svoboda, has utterly failed to reclaim its popular support that dwindled throughout 2013. In the 2012 parliamentary elections Svoboda won 10.44% of the vote;  by the end of January – beginning of February 2014, according to the opinion polls, only 5.6% of the voters would have cast their ballot for Svoboda in a parliamentary election – enough to pass the electoral threshold but obviously too poor to exert significant influence on Ukraine’s politics. Even worse for the party, its leader Oleh Tyahnybok’s presidential rating fell from 10.4% in March 2013 to 3.8% at the end of January – beginning of February 2014, making him a no-go presidential candidate. 

There are many reasons why the Ukrainian revolution may have been Svoboda’s swan song, but three particular factors seem most relevant. First of all, the party’s relative success at the 2012 parliamentary elections was due to the protest vote against the Yanukovych regime’s unpatriotic policies; with the demise of the regime, Svoboda has lost its most important source of negative voter mobilisation. 

Second, although the revolution was painted in ethnic Ukrainian colours, the emergent new nation, having gone – both metaphorically and literally –through fire and water, is revealing the traits of inclusive civic-republican, rather than exclusive-ethnic, nationhood. It is hard to imagine significant public acceptance of Svoboda’s exclusivist ethnic rhetoric after the tragic deaths of ethnic Armenian, Belarusian, Russian, Polish, Jewish and Georgian protesters; and representatives of so many national minorities, including the Crimean Tatars, fought against the Yanukovych regime.

Finally, during the protests, Svoboda’s activities were divisive and damaging to the unity of the revolutionary forces, but at the same time they were mediocre and unimpressive. Svoboda was considered a radical party, but when protesters themselves became radicalised and demanded bold and direct action, Svoboda failed to respond to the challenge. Partly because of this, the radical protesters’ sympathies have shifted to Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), a non-party-political coalition of right-wing groups led by Dmytro Yarosh that constituted a part of the non-ideological Maidan Self-Defence movement. Pravy Sektor has indeed proved to be an efficient and uncompromising fighting unit, but the future of its leaders seems to lie outside the political sphere. 

Only if the Russian invasion is stopped might the Ukrainian far right lose the major part of its support.

There is, however, an important caveat: only if the Russian invasion is stopped might the Ukrainian far right lose the major part of its support. If it continues, Ukrainian patriotism and national liberation ethos will obviously grow stronger, and the far right may use this opportunity to regain its support.


In today’s Ukraine, post-revolutionary but still highly troubled by the problems discussed above, there is a dramatic discrepancy between the people’s expectations and aspirations on the one hand and their political representation, first and foremost in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament), on the other. The example of Svoboda, which now appears to have more MPs in the Verkhovna Rada than it can take credit for, is only one of many similar cases. For instance, the parliamentary faction of the Party of Regions, an integral part of Yanukovych’s ancien regime, has seen a defection of more than 70 MPs who now largely support the former opposition to Yanukovych. While the formation of a new parliamentary, pro-democratic majority in the Verkhovna Rada is definitely a positive development, it should be understood that the faction-switchers (tushky) no longer represent their electorate. Apart from these individual cases, it is now increasingly evident that the revolution in general has fundamentally changed the society/societies in all the regions of Ukraine, but they are inadequately represented in the political sphere.

This discrepancy produces dangerous ochlocratic tendencies: politically disaffected masses turn into mobs and try to replace the political process and political competition with short-term actions under the leadership of demagogues and driven by emotions. In Ukraine, ochlocratic tendencies are now in evidence everywhere: the revolutionary Maidan movement is displeased with their revolution’s lack of instant results, supporters of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions are frustrated by defeat, and by dozens of MPs selling their interests down the river.

Communication between civil society and law-making will only be efficient if parliament is fully legitimate and representative

This criticism of ochlocratic tendencies does not imply that ordinary Ukrainians should have no influence on politics, leaving the rule of the country to the elites. However, there is a huge difference between two forms of organisation, namely a civil society and a mob. It is civil society, rather than the mob, that should have a strong say in post-revolutionary Ukraine. All the previous governments in the country have ultimately failed to create – and some have never been interested in – efficient lines of communication between civil society, law-making and state governance. In a truly democratic Ukraine, these lines of communication should be introduced through the activities of NGOs, trade unions, independent media, community-based initiatives, etc. But communication between civil society and law-making will only be efficient if the parliament is fully legitimate and properly represents the people. If it is not, it will have to face the danger of ochlocracy.

In its current composition the Verkhovna Rada, which was elected in 2012 for five years, has neither the political nor the moral right to survive until 2017. Today’s parliament should concentrate on three main tasks: dealing with the Russian invasion, helping to avert economic collapse, and securing a fair and free presidential election on 25 May 2014, followed shortly after by a parliamentary election. This will be an important step towards the complete overhaul of the political system, which was one the revolution’s main goals.

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