The people’s rebellion, or why a showman became president of Ukraine

In their wholesale rejection of the incumbent president, Ukrainian citizens have followed the logic of France’s Yellow Vests – only within the electoral system.

Vasyl Cherepanyn
24 April 2019, 1.57pm
Volodymyr Zelensky
(c) Yaghobzadeh Rafael/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

In five years since the Maidan uprising of 2013-2014, Ukraine has been affected by a counter-revolution or, rather, two counter-revolutions. The first one has been external, in the form of Russian military intervention and the occupation of Ukrainian territory. The second is internal and no less dangerous – the reconstruction of Ukraine’s oligarchic system of governance, entailing corruption, lack of legal and social justice, political assassinations, the legitimisation of far-right violence and the expansion of everyday violence that has been gradually destroying society.

At Sunday’s presidential elections, Ukrainian citizens made a surprising challenge to this established status quo with the landslide victory of showman and political novice Volodymyr Zelensky. The comedian took more than 73% of the vote compared to incumbent Petro Poroshenko’s less than 25%. This “electoral Maidan” is clearly an attempt to fulfill that which Poroshenko has failed to accomplish since 2014. It is a fundamental rejection of Ukraine’s current political class, formed and fashioned long before the “first Maidan” in 2004 – in the era of ex-president Leonid Kuchma.

This, then, is a rebellious popular vote against corrupt politics-as-usual by people who are largely non-political. In this sense, there’s a certain resonance with the Gilets Jaunes movement – and like their French counterparts, Zelensky voters do not have any political unity or ideological coherence. Their basic common denominator is negation. The demands and expectations of Zelensky voters are heterogeneous and even contradictory, ranging from putting an end to the war and oligarchy to increasing wages, lowering prices and household gas tariffs. But in the best traditions of 1968, they are demanding the “impossible” – just social conditions that are equal for all. And 73% means a clear refusal of any kind of negotiations or possible compromise with the current ruling class so that it could remain in power.

Volodymyr Zelensky
(c) Pavlo Bagmut/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

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Indeed, Zelensky is the first ever presidential candidate in Ukraine who won across the country. Yet Zelensky himself doesn’t have any substance as a politician, apart from his role as school teacher-turned-president in the popular television series “Servant of the People”. Within the electoral system, he serves as a mere screen for the popular political imagination. Whatever kind of president he turns out to be, Zelensky is obviously an illusion, but isn’t this essence of elections today – the competition of branded fantasies?

While Zelensky voters may vary widely in their claims about what they voted for, they found common ground in what they voted against. First of all, they voted against the war. And this is not a blind denial of the reality of warfare and occupation – this vote was against the war as a political and economic system of relations between the state and the society that has emerged in Ukraine during the recent years. Russian military intervention and occupation has poisoned the atmosphere inside Ukraine, creating the conditions for political reaction in the form of bans on certain social media platforms, attacks on anti-corruption NGOs, the beating and killing of activists, racist pogroms and so on.

In Ukraine, war has become an excuse for any unlawful action or inaction that can be justified under the guise of “patriotism” and “protecting the state”, wiping out the public space for dissent and alternative political agendas. In 2018, political speculation on the war reached the point where president Poroshenko introduced temporary martial law in parts of the country, with the intention of disrupting the election timetable. But the worst outcome is that the war has become profitable. Via massive corruption in the defense sector and arms smuggling, Poroshenko’s political system has benefited directly from the conflict in Donbas.

poroshenko rally march 2015
President Petro Poroshenko
(c) SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Secondly, the majority of Ukrainians voted against nationalism. Zelensky’s victory has been compared to the right-wing populist surge sweeping across the West from Italy to the US – but it is actually quite the opposite. It is symptomatic how in today’s common sense any potentially emancipative political agenda is dismissed as “populist” just because it refers to the people, the populus as such. “Populism” has become an empty signifier, which is filled with anything the political centre doesn’t accept. Instead, these desires are presented as a “threat”, but what they may contain is a blind spot of representative democracy in its current state.

Zelensky isn’t a right-winger or even a conservative, but rather a libertarian in a very broad sense, while right-wing populism is exactly what Ukraine has experienced under Poroshenko’s rule at its purest. Throughout most of his presidency, Poroshenko has addressed the Ukrainian public predominantly in a discourse of narrow-minded ethnic nationalism borrowed from Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda party. He ended up campaigning for president with the medieval slogan “Army! Language! Faith!” – in reference to laws protecting the Ukrainan language, military reforms and the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In recent years, various extreme right and neo-Nazi organisations have been legitimised in the public sphere as “activists” and “freedom fighters”, receiving the informal backing of the security services and law enforcement. They have remained unpunished for their committed hate crimes.

Scuffles between Ukrainian police and National Corps on 9 March, Kyivv
(c) Pavlo Gonchar / SOPA Images/Sipa USA. All rights reserved

In the cultural sphere, the so-called “decommunisation” campaign has been launched on the state level, taking the form of destroying the imagery and monuments inherited from the socialist past and replacing them with the heroicised figures of Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary formations. Together with Soviet memorials, the visuality of Ukraine’s modernist avant-garde tradition has been wiped out from the public space as a disturbing symbol of counter-memories and alternative historical narratives. “Patriotic” populism has externalised the Soviet period and retroactively nationalised historical memory, using the communist past for redistribution of political and symbolic capital. This “anti-communism without communists” has become a substitute for social politics, while the government has imposed neoliberal austerity measures and continued oligarchic patterns of governance.

This repression of memory has resulted in its revenge, laying the grounds for ideological conflicts that may tear the social fabric to pieces in the future. These policies were widely supported by a new cultural elite and “professional patriots” who conjured post-apocalyptic images if Poroshenko lost the second round of voting. The main lesson here is an unfortunate one: Ukraine’s cultural and political elite is very distant and detached from social reality. If Zelensky, following his TV character, presented himself as a “servant of the people”, the cultural elite took on the role of “servant of power”. In Ukraine’s elections, then, a silent majority has taken over a shouting minority.

Thirdly, Zelensky supporters voted against political spectacle. Politics in Ukraine has always been a professional business, and those working in the field present their political product in the form of a show as an opium for the people. But the media spectacle is just a populist surface that covers the neo-feudal nature of Ukraine’s oligarchic realpolitik. Paradoxically, the comedian Zelensky appeared to be the only “serious” man on the candidate list. Only a showman coming from the outside could successfully challenge the logic of political show, disrupting its formative rules from the inside.

The only times when Ukrainian citizens cease to be observers of the political processes conducted by “professionals” on television are when they take to the streets, as shown by several Maidan uprisings. In Ukraine, society has always expressed a will to be the ruling force in politics and social change. Zelensky won because he took this into account, keeping pace with social reality after 2014.

A new window of possibilities and political unpredictability has opened once again after Maidan – only this time via the ballot box, not the streets.

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